On August 10, 2023, California lawmakers decided to allow two companies that already operated small fleets of robotaxis during off-peak hours in San Francisco to expand their services. The decision provoked a lot of controversy, especially due to fears that automation could create traffic chaos – as had already happened on a few occasions in the city. But for Tekedra Mawakana, co-CEO of Waymo, it was a moment of validation. “We achieved. I can’t wait for more people to experience the benefits of full autonomy,” she said in a statement.
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Tekedra, 49, is one of the few women leading a movement that aims to revolutionize the automobile industry. “Driverless technology has the potential to make streets safer, but it is quite immature, and most people don’t know it well. Therefore, I think it is important to be honest and say that there is still a lot to learn in this field”, said the CEO, in an interview with Forbes in 2019, when she was still COO (head of operations) of the company, now valued at more than US$30. billion.
“Throughout history, the industry has transformed power, acceleration and resistance into fundamental elements of attractiveness in car sales”, says Sergio Avelleda, coordinator of the Urban Mobility Center at Insper and former secretary of Urban Mobility for the City of São Paulo. “Speed has become synonymous with success, boldness and competence. The car is an exercise of power. Autonomous people arrive to abruptly change this relationship, promoting a more rational use of the automobile.” Tekedra itself has already stated that Waymo’s goal is to make car travel “incredibly boring”. “The commute isn’t very exciting — and we don’t want it to be,” she told Business Insider in 2019.
Studies show that removing humans from the steering wheel has the potential to practically eliminate accidents, which today cause 1.3 million deaths a year worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In Brazil, 88 people per day lose their lives in traffic accidents, according to the National Road Safety Observatory (ONSV).
The purpose of making traffic safer became a commitment for Tekedra for professional and personal reasons. At an event at the University of Berkeley last March, the executive said that two of her uncles died in “completely preventable” traffic accidents. “So I have a deep connection with this mission. And that’s very different from launching the latest software.” Another factor that attracted her was disruption. The executive, who was appointed co-CEO in 2021, alongside Dmitri Dolgov, says she loves the “ambiguity” of a sector in which nothing is defined. “The regulatory environment is not consolidated and the technology is not ready,” she said, in an interview on the CES 2023 website. “But you can’t make an omelet without breaking the eggs.”
The fact is that, in the weeks that followed California’s green light, some “eggs were broken”, causing a strong reaction from public agents. The increase in incidents on the roads has led to Tekedra and other industry leaders being heavily criticized. After a crash between a robotaxi and a fire truck, Cruise decided to reduce its fleet by 50%. With the spotlight on the competitor, Tekedra and Dmitri would prefer not to speak out. But City Attorney David Chiu filed motions requesting a temporary suspension of the permit for the robotaxis. Waymo’s only official statements came from spokeswoman Julia Ilina: “We will watch the status of the pending appeal and in the meantime, we will continue to work with the city of San Francisco constructively,” she told the regional news site , Axious.
For now, Waymo operates in San Francisco and Phoenix, Arizona. But it has already announced that, later this year, it will put its autonomous cars on the streets of Austin, Texas. Los Angeles and New York are in the cards, but only in the long term. “Many engineers see autonomous cars as the biggest challenge in the area of machine learning. There are many layers of complexity. That’s why we want to deliver results little by little, city by city,” Tekedra told Insider.
Leading companies that need to deal with risk mitigation is one of Tekedra’s specialties, who was born in the state of Mississippi and has a PhD in Law from Columbia Law School. The executive had already held senior management positions at eBay, Yahoo and AOL before arriving at Waymo. Today, she also serves on the boards of directors of companies such as Intuit. She is also an angel investor in socially responsible projects and advises organizations focused on urban improvements.
In an interview with Merline Saintil, with whom she was a partner in founding Black Women on Boards – a community that promotes the presence of black executives on boards –, Tekedra said that Waymo’s challenge is enormous, but exciting. “Bringing this service to life feeds me. It is very powerful to know that we are transforming mobility in cities. And look, we’re just at the beginning.”