A decade ago, about a dozen or so engineers gathered at Google’s main Mountain View campus on Charleston Road to work on Project Chauffeur, a secret endeavor housed under the tech giant’s moonshot factory X.
Project Chauffeur — popularly know as the “Google self-driving car project” — kicked off in January 2009. It would eventually graduate from its project status to become a standalone company called Waymo in 2016.
The project, originally led by Sebastian Thrun, would help spark an entire ecosystem that is still developing today. Venture capitalists took notice and stampeded in, auto analysts shifted gears and regulators, urban planners and policy wonks started collecting data and considering the impact of AVs on cities.
The project would also become a springboard for a number of engineers who would go on to create their own companies. It’s a list that includes Aurora co-founder Chris Urmson, Argo AI co-founder Bryan Salesky and Anthony Levandowski, who helped launch Otto and more recently Pronto.ai.
What might be less known is that many who joined in those first weeks are still at Waymo, including Andrew Chatham, Dmitri Dolgov, Dirk Haehnel, Nathaniel Fairfield and Mike Montemerlo. Depending on how one defines “early days,” there are others like Hy Murveit, Phil Nemec and Dan Egnor, who have been there for eight or nine years.
Dolgov, Waymo’s CTO and VP of engineering, chatted recently with TechCrunch about the early days, its 10-year anniversary and what’s next.
Below is an excerpt of an interview with Dolgov, which has been edited for clarity and length.
TC: Let’s go back to the beginning of how you got started. Take me to those first days at the Google self-driving project.
DOLGOV: When I think about what drew me to this field, it’s always been three main things: the impact of the technology, the technology itself and the challenges as well as the people you get to work with. It’s pretty obvious, at this point, that it can have huge implications on safety, but beyond that, it can impact efficiency and remove friction from transportation for people and things.
There is this sense of excitement that never seems to die off. I remember the first time I got to work on a self-driving car. And it was the first time when the car drove itself using software that I had written, you know, just earlier in the day. So this was back in 2007. And that completely blew my mind. (Dolgov participated in the DARPA Urban Challenge in November 2007 before the Google project launched.)