Feb 14, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Here's why we should hope self-driving tech is ready soon

A white minivan.

Waymo's self-driving minivans. Photo: Courtesy of Waymo

This week during several automated driving demonstrations in Arizona I was reminded why we should all hope self-driving technology is ready soon.

Why it matters: Self-driving cars don't get drunk, tired, distracted — or do things that are just plain stupid — behaviors I saw in spades on the roads in and around Phoenix and Tuscon.

Details: Not five minutes into a Waymo One ride (with a backup safety driver) in Chandler, a driver blasted through a red light and T-boned another car just ahead of me.

  • Neither driver was seriously hurt, but both cars sustained heavy damage.
  • Earlier in the week, I was riding in a TuSimple automated semi-truck on I-10, a busy freight corridor. (A backup driver and engineer were up front.)
  • Most of the drive was unremarkable, but then a car limping along the shoulder decided to pull slowly into the lane of traffic moving at 65 mph.
  • TuSimple's automated system rightly detected the potential problem and told the safety driver to take over.
  • Later, a camper towing a Jeep drifted into the semi-truck's lane while passing and TuSimple's backup driver opted to take control herself, as a safety precaution.

Road rage is a different problem, for which there might not be a solution until all cars are driven by robots.

Driving the news: A disgruntled former Waymo safety driver was arrested this week and charged with aggravated assault and reckless driving for allegedly trying to cause a crash with Waymo vehicles.

  • Police say the man deliberately cut in front of a manually operated Waymo vehicle, slamming the brakes, causing Waymo's safety driver to rear end his car. Her injuries required hospitalization.

One reassuring incident: A bicyclist told me in a Tweet message about a near-miss he had with an unoccupied driverless Waymo vehicle. He thought the vehicle making a left turn was going to strike him as he rode through the intersection.

  • I investigated with Waymo, which later shared a video of the moment so that I could see how the car recorded it.
  • The car spotted the cyclist a full block away and tracked its movement continually, slowing to 6 mph as it approached the intersection to make the left turn.
  • Importantly, the computer created a red "digital fence" across the intersection, telling the car not to proceed until the cyclist had cleared its path. Then the fence disappeared and the car completed the turn.
  • If everyone could see what the car's computer saw, and how it adjusted its behavior, they'd be more comfortable with the idea of self-driving technology.

The bottom line: 36,560 people died in highway accidents in 2018. The vast majority of those accidents were caused by human behavior.

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