Waymo CEO John Krafcik has posted something of an apology on Medium about an accident last month in Mountain View involving a passenger car and a vehicle from Waymo, which just got permission to start testing self-driving cars in California. The accident occurred when a passenger car started drifting into the lane occupied by the Waymo car, at which point a safety driver in the latter took over to avoid a collision. In shifting the Waymo car over into the right lane, however, its rear bumper hit a motorcyclist who the Waymo safety driver didn’t see.
The gist of Krafcik’s Medium post: The human should have let the car do its thing, because the car would have been able to spot the motorcyclist and course-correct.
“Our review of this incident confirmed that our technology would have avoided the collision by taking a safer course of action,” Krafcik explains. “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.”
He goes on to note that Waymo’s test drivers undergo “rigorous” training that includes defensive driving courses and guidance on how to handle scenarios that unfold on the road in a split second. But some situations of course still challenge even the most proficient and alert human drivers, he continued, while Waymo’s technology includes the ability to see 360 degrees in every direction at all times.”
That may be true, but as we and others have reported in recent months, while driverless car technology in general may be 90 percent of the way there, it’s that final 10 percent that’s proven the trickiest to nail. A recent report from The Information, for example, found that drivers in Arizona aren’t exactly happy they’ve been having to share the streets with Waymo’s cars. In fact: “More than a dozen local residents who frequently encounter one of the hundreds of Waymo test vehicles circulating in the area complained about sudden moves or stops. The company’s safety drivers — individuals who sit in the driver’s seat — regularly have to take control of the wheel to avoid a collision or potentially unsafe situation, the people said.”
A version of which, of course, is what happened last month. Nevertheless, Waymo’s chief promises that bit by bit, it’s getting better.
“At Waymo, our safety culture is core to everything we do,” he writes. “We have carefully developed our testing program in the past decade and over 10 million miles … Constant, vigilant monitoring of the car’s surroundings informs our technology’s driving decisions and can lead to safer outcomes.”