Waymo Comments on Autopilot Crash, Blames Driver

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
waymo comments on autopilot crash blames driver

While the investigation into Tesla’s most recent Autopilot-rated fatality continues, Waymo chimed in to remind everyone that the company’s self-driving system isn’t actually self-driving at all. That almost makes it sound like the Google offshoot is coming to the defense of Tesla Motors. However, the truth of the matter is this was a golden opportunity for Waymo to sneak in another humblebrag that its autonomous technology is the genuine article and that most of its competitors are playing catch-up.

It’s a valid point. We shouldn’t forget that Tesla’s Autopilot is not representative of true autonomy and the burden of safety still falls squarely on the driver. But the manufacturer didn’t always market it that way, and only updated the system to require hands on the wheel after the first fatality. This incident is different from the recent Uber crash in Tempe, Arizona. But just how different is debatable and largely dependent on what qualifies as “self-driving” to the average person.

“Tesla has driver-assist technology and that’s very different from our approach,” explained Waymo CEO John Krafcik last week, before Tesla revealed that Autopilot was engaged during the Model X crash. “If there’s an accident in a Tesla, the human in the driver’s seat is ultimately responsible for paying attention. We don’t know what happened here, but there was no self-driving.”

An accurate statement but it doesn’t take into account the full picture. Driving aids allow motorists to place a lot of faith in their vehicles’ on-board safety systems, more than enough to let their guard down. In that respect, any wreck involving advanced assist features mimics a central aspect of the Uber crash — a driver who checked out entirely and allowed the vehicle to do all of the work until it failed.

Besides, there are a subset of Tesla drivers who will go to incredible lengths to continue driving their cars hands-free on the expressway. We’ve seen how-to videos of owners affixing a water bottle or orange to the steering wheel, fooling the car’s computer into thinking they are human hands. It’s wildly unsafe but shows the ridiculous lengths people are willing to go to not to have to drive themselves. But we don’t know what Wei Huang was doing in the moments leading up to the fatal March 23rd crash. The destroyed Model X’s computer logs only showed he was using Autopilot and did not have his hands on the wheel for roughly six seconds before impact.

No, Tesla’s Autopilot is not autonomous and we need to remember that. But the mere fact that it allows drivers to operate the vehicle hands-free, even for short periods of time, still complicates the issue of who is to blame. The average motorist isn’t going to presume they cannot trust the hardware on a vehicle they’ve purchased with “advanced driving technology.” If it’s there, they will attempt to use it. And if it works once, they will assume it will continue to function thusly.

This is an industry-wide problem. Every automaker promoting this kind of technology, whether it’s fully autonomous or not, needs to be incredible careful as to how it’s implemented. Consumers will put their faith into these systems if there is even the faintest shred of self-driving hype and, when it fails, they’ll be the ones paying the price. That doesn’t automatically place the burden of responsibility on auto manufacturers and tech firms; each case is totally unique. But if they all feel a little guilty whenever a customer trusts their safety hardware too much and dies as a result, they’d probably be justified.

[Source: Bloomberg]

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3 of 8 comments
  • Dukeisduke Dukeisduke on Apr 03, 2018

    Shut up, Krafcik.

    • Stuki Stuki on Apr 04, 2018

      While certainly done in the interest of self interest, it may well ultimately be in the interest of public safety to educate clueless, starstruck regulators and punters sufficiently that they stop falling all over themselves clamoring to be "the first, like, new-new, like, tech and, like, stock prices it's, like cool, like innovative blah blah" place where a bunch of not even half finished science experiments are being tested on unsuspecting populations. In a fully financialized Hypetopia like ours, there are very real costs to being realistic and cautious, like Waymo have been, compared to other, less scrupulous punters.

  • Mark Morrison Mark Morrison on Apr 04, 2018

    Perhaps the guys who know more about the tech of autonomy could comment on the fact that Tesla doesn’t use LIDAR and most other folks developing autonomous vehicles pretty much say you must have LIDAR?

  • Zerofoo The UAW understands that this is their last stand. Their future consists of largely robot assembled EVs that contain far fewer parts. Factories moving to southern "right to work" states and factories moving to the southern-most state of Mexico.I don't think lights-out auto factories are on the horizon, but UAW demands might move those automated manufacturing process timelines up.McDonalds opened a fully automated restaurant in Texas in 2022 in response to a $15/hour minimum wage demand. I'm fairly certain that at $130/hr - fully robotic car factories start to make sense.
  • Redapple2 Cherry 20 yr old Defenders are $100,000 +. Til now.
  • Analoggrotto So UAW is singling out Ford, treating them slightly better in order to motivate the entire effort. Mildly Machiavellian but this will cost them dearly in the future. The type of ill will and betrayal the Detroit-3 must be feeling right now will be the utter demise of UAW. I just hope that this tribulation is not affecting Mary Barra's total hotness.
  • Redapple2 I guessed they were ~$150,000. Maybe attainable.
  • Redapple2 want one.