By raising $2.25 billion for Waymo, Alphabet (GOOGL) is both signaling that its self-driving arm will keep investing heavily to realize its vision, and that it won't be the only company to shoulder the load going forward.
One thing hasn't changed, however: Waymo isn't currently getting a lot of help from major automakers as it tries to commercialize its self-driving systems on a large scale.
On Monday afternoon, Waymo announced that it raised $2.25 billion in a round led by PE firm Silver Lake, Abu Dhabi's sovereign wealth fund (Mubadala Investment Company) and Canada's pension plan. Other investors are said to include auto parts supplier Magna International, car dealership chain AutoNation (AN) , VC firm Andreessen Horowitz and Alphabet itself.
Waymo didn't disclose the valuation its investors granted it. However, JPMorgan analyst Doug Anmuth noted that his firm's talks with investors suggest Waymo's value is north of $50 billion, and possibly much higher. Morgan Stanley assigned Waymo a $105 billion valuation (down from a prior $175 billion) back in September.
Anmuth also pointed out that with Waymo referring to its funding round as an "initial $2.25 billion close," more external funding could be on the way.
The announcement comes three months after Sundar Pichai (formerly just Google's CEO) was named Alphabet's CEO. It also comes two months after Alphabet's Verily life science unit raised $1 billion in outside funding, and a month after Pichai and CFO Ruth Porat signaled on Alphabet's Q4 earnings call that their company is open to having other businesses in its money-hemorrhaging "Other Bets" segment (such as Waymo) do the same.
In addition, the funding round follows a recent report from The Information stating that Waymo's headcount has grown from 800 to 1,500 over the past year, with the new hires including "hundreds of engineers Waymo hopes will help it achieve a technological breakthrough in developing a reliable self-driving vehicle."
As it is, Waymo has long been believed to be a large contributor to Other Bets' operating losses, which (inclusive of large stock comp expenses) totaled $1.33 billion in Q4 and $4.8 billion for the whole of 2019. In addition to Waymo and Verily, Other Bets covers units such as Google Fiber, the Google X R&D organization and Alphabet's investment arms.
Waymo's new funds give it a means of paying for its recent hiring binge without having Alphabet foot the bill. And if the company feels its technology and services have become mature enough for such a move, the money could also help finance a major expansion of Waymo's vehicle fleet (a positive for chip supplier Intel (INTC) ) and the launch of its driverless taxi services in new markets.
For now, Waymo's taxi service (known as Waymo One) is only available in the East Valley portion of the Phoenix metro area -- a place whose weather and infrastructure make it a near-perfect testbed for such a service. But in spite of its limitations, the service's launch does drive home Waymo's current technology lead when it comes to commercializing driverless vehicles.
In December, Waymo reported having more than 1,500 Waymo One monthly riders, even though it was only then making the service available to iPhone users. The company has also made some of its vehicles available to Phoenix-area Lyft (LYFT) riders.
Nonetheless, in spite of its technology lead, major automakers generally remain wary for now of partnering closely with Waymo. And certainly, their total absence from Waymo's latest funding round is pretty glaring.
To date, Waymo has inked deals with Fiat Chrysler (FCAU) and Jaguar Land Rover to buy vehicles for its fleet, and has formed a partnership with Renault and Nissan through which the companies plan to "explore driverless mobility services" for people and goods in France and Japan. However, in spite of many talks with auto giants, Waymo hasn't yet inked a deal through which a major automaker has agreed to use Waymo's hardware and software within vehicles that it plans to sell to third parties.
Judging by past reports and executive comments, fears of surrendering too much control over the user experience and autonomous driving R&D to Waymo -- essentially, of having a relationship similar to what PC makers have had over the years with Microsoft (MSFT) and Intel, or what Android OEMs generally have with Google -- are the main reason auto giants have kept Waymo at arm's length.
And with fully autonomous vehicles not yet ready to be commercialized on a large scale, major automakers apparently feel that for now at least, they can keep focusing on their own autonomous driving projects and see what happens.
Should Waymo's technology get close to seeing such large-scale commercialization over the next couple of years, it's possible that some of those automakers will have a change of heart. And one could also add that Waymo referring to its funding round as an "initial" one leaves the door open to a follow-up round that could feature an automaker or two.
But for the moment at least, Waymo is still far more of a competitor for Big Auto than it is a partner.