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.