PHOENIX — A cluster of identical white Jaguar SUVs with hazard lights on stopped in the street in the Roosevelt District.
Confused drivers — soon to become irritated drivers — begin to yell at the cars to get out of the way.
A man walking by takes out his phone and starts recording as a motorist yells, “You’re holding up traffic!”
But the driver isn’t yelling at anyone. The man with the phone isn’t recording anyone behind the wheel of all those white SUVs.
Because all of the SUVs — a dozen of them according to the man recording to TikTok — are driverless cars operated by Waymo.
Waymo has been operating completely driverless cars for a few years in the Chandler area. But only in the last year have these cars begun to operate in downtown Phoenix. And, on occasion, they run into situations the car doesn’t “expect,” which causes them to freeze.
“It’s clearly a glitch in the system,” ASU self-driving car researcher Andrew Maynard said. “I haven’t seen anything quite as big as this with the number of Waymos being confused.”
Maynard said it’s not unexpected to see self-driving cars malfunction in some way. After all, the car has to be programmed to do everything a human driver can and should do — with the added complication of the technology not having been invented to do it.
“Companies are working on this, but I think there are some glitches to iron out,” Maynard said. “I don’t think that they’re critical glitches but we’ve got to work out what happens when something really unusual happens and you really need a human in place.”
Self-driving cars have been stalling mid-drive for a while now, just not en masse in Arizona.
In April, a self-driving car from GM’s self-driving company Cruise was pulled over by police in San Francisco for driving without headlights. The window rolled down, but no one was inside. Video of the stop shows a police officer turning away and heading back to his patrol car. The Cruise vehicle then takes off and pulls over again down the road.
Other Waymos have reportedly bunched up and stopped moving on a dead-end San Francisco street in 2021.
Waymo confirmed their vehicles stopped moving in Phoenix on the day the TikTok video was taken and sent a statement:
“At around 8 pm April 7, multiple Waymo vehicles encountered a situation prompting them to stop on First St in Downtown Phoenix. As safety is central to our mission, our autonomous driving technology prioritizes the safest driving path with the information it has at any given moment. Sometimes, that means our vehicle will pull over or come to a stop if it’s assessed to be the safest course of action in that instance, as happened here. We have teams and systems in place to assist the vehicle when needed, and our operations teams cleared the vehicles once they arrived on location. We have identified the software that contributed to this situation and made appropriate updates across our fleet.”
A Waymo spokesperson also said the company met with the Phoenix Police Department to talk about what happened and the best ways to solve those issues when they happen.