By on April 1, 2021

Waymo, the autonomous program backed by Google-parent Alphabet, seems to have upset some residents of Phoenix, Arizona, who have elected to whip eggs at the company’s test vehicles. Selected due to its lax regulatory standards, the state has become home base for Waymo to pioneer its self-driving vans since 2016. However, newly released police reports paint a picture where the locals are far less enthused with the vehicles’ progress than Waymo’s marketing materials would suggest.

A subset of Phoenix citizens has been demanding the firm improve transparency and offer better explanations for some of the higher-profile crashes since 2018. Despite Waymo assuring the public that mishaps are rare, local reports showed some erratic behavior among the test mules operating in 2020. While a few of these incidents made the news, local police reports from Chandler and Tempe (metropolitan Phoenix) indicate there was a slew of incidents we did not know about — many of which involved encounters with frustrated, human motorists.

While Waymo’s test vehicles have seemingly made good progress, their propensity to stop whenever they get confused (an intentional safety feature) has been frustrating the locals. According to the Phoenix New Times, which gained access to the documents thanks to Arizona’s public records law, 2020 might not have gone as smoothly as Waymo has been projecting.

From Phoenix New Times: 

Earlier this month, the company bragged about how well its vehicles would perform if they replaced human drivers, and how many lives they could have saved in Chandler. Yet the company hasn’t been totally transparent with metro Phoenix residents, refusing to turn over data showing how many times the vehicles’ autonomous function has failed while driving around Chandler, Tempe, and other Valley areas. The latest police reports help to explain why the company has struggled in its deployment of a fully driverless fleet. Although its vehicles can operate in driverless mode, nearly all still have backup drivers behind the wheel when they’re on the road.

Abrupt stops have been noted in the vehicles for years, but rear-end collisions are usually seen as the fault of a driver who didn’t stop in time. The October 8 incident is harder to figure out. At about 11:30 a.m. that day, a white Waymo minivan was traveling westbound in the middle of three westbound lanes on Chandler Boulevard, in autonomous mode, when it unexpectedly braked for no reason.

That car was ultimately struck by a Chevrolet Silverado. While that pickup driver got away without receiving a citation, the Chandler Police Department cited one of their own officers in January 2020 for rear-ending a Waymo van that optioned to stop in the middle of an intersection. But we’re just getting warmed up. Some citizens, exasperated with the Google-owned company’s continued operations in their town, have stopped venting their frustrations exclusively online and started exercising their anger in the physical world. You might recall incidents from several years ago where a vigilante Jeep driver intentionally went out of their way to bully the vans off the road or people started vandalizing unattended Waymo vehicles.

Well, those sorts of incidents haven’t let up and 2020 introduced some new ones. Numerous individuals have been egging the vans, with one man following them around all day in his car so he could hit multiple targets. Ice cream cones have also been whipped at the test mules and there are reports of them having close calls with pedestrians and motorcyclists that become enraged and attack. Waymo safety drivers have also been spotted unconscious inside the vehicles under suspected narcotics use. But the biggest issue continues to be vans making erratic stops whenever the system runs into trouble — something the company has been coping with since it began operations in Arizona.

Waymo apparently won’t release its disengagement data for the state but maintains that the brake-first safety policy is likely the best and we’re inclined to agree. Rear-end collisions are infinitely preferable to head-on accidents and the car stopping itself is bound to get it into less trouble than attempting to take evasive maneuvers it’s not prepared for. The company also released 2020 for California, which showed 21 disengagements over 629,000 miles of autonomous driving in that state. That’s less than 4 per every 100,000 miles, which isn’t that bad if all the minivans did was need the driver to momentarily take the wheel without incident.

But it doesn’t really show how well the vehicles performed when left to their own devices and might not have much to do with the growing ire of those living in the Phoenix area. Based on some of the complains online, many people seem to feel these cars are in the way or have grown uncomfortable of the ideas of robotic vehicles owned by the same company that runs Google being trained on public roads.

The entire issue harkens back to 2017 when Ford and Virginia Tech disguised a man as a car seat to see how people would respond to driverless vehicles. Seemingly ridiculous at the time, whatever information was gathered from those tests might have been invaluable. Even before that, there were loads of people talking about the opportunities hyper-aggressive drivers would have to bully AVs into submission and ruminations on the likelihood of there being more incentive to do so since the act is being committed against a computer. It certainly makes you wonder about the future of autonomous vehicles, especially if their development ever reaches a point where they start being introduced for commercial fleets and luxury automotive brands.

[Images: Waymo]

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13 Comments on “Not Everyone in Arizona Is a Fan of Waymo’s Self-Driving Vans...”

  • avatar

    Love that drivers are trying to drive these stupid things crazy – reminds me of the episodes of “Star Trek” where Captain Kirk mind-f**ked any number of “superior” computers into committing digital harakiri.

    Works for me. Self-driving tech isn’t ready for prime time…not by a long stretch. Hopefully people wake up to that before one of these stupid things – or some guy in a Tesla who’s showing off Autopilot while he’s binge-watching “Game of Thrones” – self-pilots into a van full of senior citizens on their way to a bingo game.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Posky

      I recently watched the one where Kirk tells the probe that it’s imperfect until it blows up. Seems the perfect analogy.

    • 0 avatar

      “Love that drivers are trying to drive these stupid things crazy”

      I figured that would become a popular sport. No doubt lots of people will be trying to figure out exactly what tricks will drive these vanbots nuts (or off the road into a tree…).

  • avatar

    People are probably pissed off at the vans for obeying the speed limit and stopping at yellow lights.

  • avatar

    Why would someone waste perfectly good ice cream throwing it at a robot?

  • avatar

    In a conventional car, it’s the driver’s job to avoid mistakes that will result in a wreck. In the current crop of not-really-autonomous cars, it’s the “driver’s” job to catch the car before one of its mistakes results in a wreck. If you enjoy driving, the former is rewarding. Whether or not you enjoy driving, the latter is nerve wracking.

  • avatar

    I’ve got to wonder how much of this is availability bias. I used to be in a guard unit in Chandler and it has a finite number of main artery roads. Thus, if you live there, you likely see these vans all the time and they really stand out when they do something weird.
    As a thought exercise, imagine if we made all drivers under 20, or over 70, operate big white vans with branding on the side. I imagine there would be a lot of discussions about them too.
    IMHO, these things may not be perfect, but once they are 2-3 times as safe as the average driver, I say turn em loose.

  • avatar

    Google IS evil.

  • avatar
    Jeff Semenak

    I live in Tempe and work in Chandler. Compared to the Thousands of folks on their phones and, Thousands who can’t turn their Headlights on at night; Waymo is not a risk. Good point about Waymo following the rules of the road. Many here look at them as mild suggestions, at best.

  • avatar
    Polka King

    I see the postal service and UPS deploying self-drivers with trebuchets on their rooves to launch the packages onto people’s porches.

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