Waymo Spins Tragedy Into Triumph for Autonomous Vehicles

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
waymo spins tragedy into triumph for autonomous vehicles

Last month, a motorcyclist was injured by one of Waymo’s self-driving Chrysler Pacificas. According to the accident report, a car in the left lane attempted to merge into the same middle lane as the Pacifica test platform, which was operating in autonomous mode. The safety driver then “took manual control of the Pacifica out of an abundance of caution, disengaged from self-driving mode, and began changing lanes into .”

Considering the AV wasn’t traveling above 25 mph, it’s a little curious the driver took evasive action, unless the second car attempted to merge directly into it. Regardless, the Pacifica’s lane change placed it into direct contact with a motorcycle that was moving slightly faster. Waymo said that, had the autonomous system been left in play, the vehicle would have assuredly avoided the accident.

Of course it would have.

Waymo conducts software simulations after each instance where a driver takes control of a vehicle to see how the software would have responded.

“Our review of this incident confirmed that our technology would have avoided the collision by taking a safer course of action,” explained the company’s CEO, John Krafcik. “While our test driver’s focus was on the car ahead, our self-driving system was simultaneously tracking the position, direction and speed of every object around it. Crucially, our technology correctly anticipated and predicted the future behavior of both the merging vehicle and the motorcyclist. Our simulation shows the self-driving system would have responded to the passenger car by reducing our vehicle’s speed, and nudging slightly in our own lane, avoiding a collision.”

It’s still a shame the motorcyclist had to eat the bumper of a vehicle owned by the tech firm and end up in the hospital, but, boy oh boy is it ever a big relief to know it wouldn’t have happened if a human wasn’t in control of the car.

Unfortunately, the reality is that Waymo’s platform isn’t omnipotent. There was another incident in May that the company’s software couldn’t have accounted for. That incident, which took place in Chandler, Arizona, is a little complicated, however. Initial police reports claimed the test platform (another Pacifica) was operating in autonomous mode when a Honda Civic swerved into its lane to avoid another vehicle. Judging from the damage and report, it appears that the Honda turned directly into the side of the minivan.

There’s more anecdotal evidence that these platforms aren’t yet up to snuff. In August, residents of Chandler, Arizona told The Information that they hated having to share the road with Waymo’s test vehicles. Numerous locals have complained about the vehicles making erratic stops and struggling to get through turns involving multiple lanes of oncoming traffic, even after being stopped at a light.

For what it’s worth, most of this is a byproduct of Waymo programming the cars to act as defensively as possible. AVs may have come a long way, but they can still get confounding by new information; humans are much less attentive but more skilled at adapting. This causes autonomous cars do to things that seem stupid for no apparent reason, whereas a human driver wouldn’t have become perplexed in the first place. We tend to ignore useless (and sometimes important) information, whereas a computer still has to process everything and decide what it means.

Does that mean the Pacifica would have avoided the motorcycle on October 19th if left to its own devices? Maybe. But we also know that tech firms and automakers are hesitant to admit to gaps in their hardware. Make no mistake, as incredible as the technology is, it’s perpetually overblown by those developing it. They’ll always tell you it works unless faced with a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

[Image: Waymo]

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4 of 8 comments
  • WalterRohrl WalterRohrl on Nov 07, 2018

    Can an autonomous vehicle autonomously lay on the horn to warn the merger or will it always just immediately roll over for anyone more assertive? Maybe they can mark the return of semaphores in the shape of a finger than can pop up too. /s

    • Tosh Tosh on Nov 07, 2018

      I just hope I don't ever run into the back of one, as I've seen these type cars around SF, and it liked to STOP a lot.

  • SlowMyke SlowMyke on Nov 08, 2018

    While I'm personally torn over how i feel about autonomous vehicles on public roads, do either of the incidents highlighted here really reflect poorly on waymo? It seems it really just shows how many errors bad drivers can make/cause. Callous as it may be, waymo could be 100% right in their assertion. And the second instance- why would anyone assume anything could anticipate another car deciding to t-bone it at random? Unless there's communication between cars, there's not really a way to anticipate someone deciding to swerve at you to avoid something else (unless there are obvious visual signs like the person not looking where they are going, drifting in the lane, etc). Part of the social contract involved in driving is that we all trust one another not to turn kamikaze. It doesn't always work, but if everyone drove skittish enough to try anticipating random swerves, the road would be even more hectic. By all means, auto journalism needs to report on progress and incidents involving AV's to keep them in check. Uber and Tesla are proving this for us. But sometimes a crash is a crash. Am i missing part of the story here? Aside from pointing out waymo needs to brush up on their complex intersection programming, what here actually has to do with autonomous vehicle operation? Edit to finish my thought:. This feels much more like a piece on the corporate culture/social sensitivities of big tech corporations. I feel like Tesla and Elon Musk are creating an environment of callous boldness much the same Trump is for the political environment. Perhaps this is more the subject of the piece.

    • SlowMyke SlowMyke on Nov 08, 2018

      Too late to edit again: I'm not trying to bring politics into this with Trump, I'm just using the example that he prefers to "say it like it is" without worrying about being overly concerned with pleasantries. To relate this to the auto industry - Musk certainly has done away with any frivolous pleasantries and will just go after something and plainly state why he/Tesla is in the right or how their tech is doing things correctly, despite a negative outcome. I feel like in the not too distant past, this would be a PR faux pas, but now responses like waymo's are the norm. "Yeah, something bad happened, but we know how to fix it and our product would have done it better."

  • Drnoose Probably just cutting conservative talk radio off at the knees. They can’t beat it, so kill it one way of the other.
  • Teddyc73 Looking forward to this. Hopefully it doesn't succomb to the leftist agenda and only come as an EV. If there is a gasoline version and a decent sized bed I'll consider this to replace my Ram 1500 when the day comes. Please let it be available in colors other than the same boring ones Ram has offered for years.
  • Xidex i haven't even turned the dial to AM since the 90's I think at that time it was only because there is one station i liked was on the AM dial (it is no longer around) Someone had to point to the station otherwise i wouldn't have even scanned the AM dial. I still think the AM dial should be left on radios though, If no one listened to it then there wouldn't be any stations would there.
  • Kwik_Shift I have five AM stations preset, each different from one another in terms of content. Some politics, some day to day, some do it yourselfing or help. Focus is more on local news and events. FM is just about pushing crap music and djs pushing the MSM message for their corporate overlords. FM is about making radio sound exactly the same all over North America. I like ONE FM station that plays different varieties of country music and has an entertaining dj. Overall, to each their own.
  • Kat Laneaux What's the benefits of this as opposed to the Ford or Nissan. Will the mileage be better than the 19 city, 24 hwy? Will it cost less than the average of $60,000? Will it be a hybrid?