Waymo, an Alphabet-owned company, is widely regarded as the most advanced and responsible self-driving outfit operating in the United States right now. It is also the only one legally providing fully self-driving taxi rides, albeit only in the East Valley area of Phoenix. And while Waymo’s safety record is pretty impressive, it still gets into the occasional hairy and, frankly, hilarious situation.
The latest such incident comes from Joel Johnson, a YouTuber who records Waymo rides, and was first spotted by CleanTechnica.
On this particular ride, the car attempted to make a right turn out of a residential area onto a four-lane road, but the right lane of the road it was turning onto was closed off with road cones. This confused the Waymo car to the point where it didn’t move.
This is one of those situations a human driver could handle easily, but this computer, clearly, has trouble making sense of what’s going on. Rather than risk it, the Waymo car sits there. A pickup truck comes up behind the Waymo and starts getting impatient. Johnson gestures futilely trying to tell the pickup to go around.
Waymo has procedures in place for just such instances. First, there’s the help line of remote assistance available in case riders have questions or concerns. When the car gets stuck, a voice comes on through this system and talks to Johnson throughout the rest of the ride. Second, a roving band of roadside assistance vans is in the service area for just such instances of computers being flummoxed by basic human situations. Within a minute or so, roadside assistance is dispatched.
But, after about four minutes of being stuck, the car suddenly decides it can make the turn after all, eases into the open left lane, and then promptly eases its way to stradling both lanes, partially blocking the roadway.
There is still enough space for cars to pass it on the left, but about four minutes later the Waymo car quickly corrects that and reverses slightly so it is fully blocking the left lane.
Fortunately, less than a minute later, construction workers come by and pick up all the cones, freeing Waymo for the rest of its glorious self-driving ride. Except, the Waymo still doesn’t go anywhere, until roadside assistance finally gets close. At that point the Waymo decides it’s got this and drives away.
But that only lasts for about a minute. A few more cones appear, and the car gets stuck again.
The car runs away from roadside assistance once more before finally being disabled and manually driven the rest of the way.
Waymo provided a statement about the whole affair to Johnson, which says:
“While driving fully autonomously through an extended work zone, the Waymo Driver detected an unusual situation and requested the attention of a remote Fleet Response specialist to provide additional information. During that interaction, the Fleet Response team provided incorrect guidance, which made it challenging for the Waymo Driver to resume its intended route, and required Waymo’s Roadside Assistance team to complete the trip. While the situation was not ideal, the Waymo Driver operated the vehicle safely until Roadside Assistance arrived. Throughout, Waymo’s team was in touch with the rider, who provided thoughtful and helpful feedback that allows us to continue learning and improving the Waymo Driver. Our team has already assessed the event and improved our operational process.”
The video represents a more mundane scenario about what happens when self-driving vehicles don’t work properly and what kind of support network is needed to deal with these situations safely.
On the one hand, it’s clear the situation is a bit mismanaged on Waymo’s end, with the car repeatedly running away from the support services and not being deactivated sooner. On the other hand, it never puts the rider in a particularly dangerous situation. Even when it is blocking the travel lane, it is doing so in a manner no different than a car with mechanical problems and its hazard lights are on. It’s easy to imagine the car being programmed to be more aggressive with the cone situation, doing something dangerous, and someone getting hurt.
On Twitter, Johnson acknowledged that by posting the video he is, in the words of one concerned reply guy, giving “Waymo haters ammo to hate on Waymo,” but responded, “I’m just being honest with what I see. If it happened to me, it goes in a video…How can I prove the technology is great if I hide it when the occasional mistake happens. I refuse to be called out for cherry picking.”
In another reply, in which someone made the inevitable reference to Tesla, Johnson said “this Waymo performance with cones is the exception to the rule. People are ignoring my other 53 videos where it works just fine.” For his part, Johnson seems to be having a great time throughout the entire half-hour ride.