Waymo Briefly Sidelines Test Vehicles Due to Fog

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving unit, reportedly had some of its San Francisco-based test vehicles stymied by dense fog earlier in the week. Compared to some of the other incidents we’ve seen attached to autonomous test cars of late, the fog delay seems to be the most minor of mishaps. However, it’s another reminder that a lot of the systems AVs use to "see" have yet to overcome inclement weather.

You’ve undoubtedly noticed this if your own vehicle is equipped with advanced driving aids. But the premise is basically the same when it comes to autonomous test mules hoping to pioneer true hands-free driving.

While Waymo has done the brunt of its testing in sunny Arizona, it’s been setting up shop in other parts of the country to see how best to cope with different types of weather. This includes coastal California, which often offers up a morning fog as the sun heats up ground that has been saturated by the tide. As Waymo’s vehicles are (like most AVs) heavily reliant on LiDAR, the fog created some complications.

The laser-based system is pretty good at creating a clear three-dimensional map around objects when there are no obstructions. But things like fog, snow, rain, or even dust can scatter the beam and cause problems for the light detection and ranging aspects of LiDAR.

Waymo said that several test vehicles had to be stopped Tuesday morning after traffic was impeded by the fog. The units moved out of the area a short time later after viability improved.

"We have software updates planned to improve our fog and parking performance to address such situations in the future," the company said in a statement to Reuters.

Software updates have become a blanket response to any failure modern vehicles endure. However, there’s not much more Waymo can do since the onboard computer has to be taught how to cope with troublesome weather.

The only other option is to install more advanced LiDAR systems or begin implementing other imaging solutions (e.g. infrared, visual cameras, radar, etc) and then teach the vehicles how best to utilize them in tandem with the preexisting laser imaging. But the company’s vans already utilize both camera and radar arrays.

Waymo recently applied for the relevant permits to operate a robo-taxi service in San Francisco as it does in Phoenix. However, its last update on the scheme noted that it’s still waiting on the driverless deployment permit from the California Public Utilities Commission. That means it can technically offer rides to customers but there has to be a human safety driver present at all times.

Meanwhile, General Motors’ Cruise (Waymo's primary rival) has been able to offer driverless rides in San Francisco since November of 2021. Though it’s not been without a few mishaps of its own, the most recent of which involved one of its test vehicles running into a city bus.

[Image: Waymo]

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Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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3 of 7 comments
  • Akear Akear on Apr 14, 2023

    Pragmatism always wins out over fantasy. This technology will fade into the sunset and be mostly forgotten by 2030. The technology just is not there yet.

  • Mcs Mcs on Apr 16, 2023

    I was working on early versions of AV technology for some of the early DARPA Challenges. I tested LIDAR and there were so many flaws with it, I gave up on it. So many more flaws that these AV companies have yet to uncover. They need new sensor technology added. One is ground mapping with ground penetrating radar. The ground under roads is like a fingerprint and you can tell where are if it's mapped even if the road is unplowed and under 6 inches of snow. Small sections of the ground will change with construction and natural movement, but those changes can be mapped into the system by vehicles automatically crowdsourcing the new information as vehicles pass over the new sections. Better infrared cameras in the LWIR spectral band should help with the fog.

    With better technology, these systems can become better than any human. It's just not going to happen in the timeframe everyone thinks it is and it's going to cost way more than they originally imagined.

  • IBx1 Never got the appeal of these; it looks like there was a Soviet mandate to create a car with two doors and a roof that could be configured in different ways.
  • CAMeyer Considering how many voters will be voting for Trump because they remember that gas prices were low in 2020–never mind the pandemic—this seems like a wise move.
  • The Oracle Been out on the boat on Lake James (NC) and cooking up some hella good food here with friends at the lake place.
  • ToolGuy Also on to-do list: Read the latest Steve S. fiction work on TTAC (May 20 Junkyard Find)
  • 1995 SC I'm likely in the minority, but I really liked the last Eldorado best. That and the STS.