Feb 14, 2020 - Energy & Environment

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

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.

Go deeper

Waymo's driverless milestone marks the start of AV race

Photos: Joann Muller/Axios

A ride in Waymo's driverless minivan is awe-inspiring, but also a reminder of how industry hype has skewed our expectations for self-driving cars.

Why it matters: Waymo is the first company to deploy automated vehicles on public roads without anyone behind the wheel, but all that means is they've crossed the starting line in the self-driving race.

Waymo raises $2.25 billion to fuel its self-driving tech plans

Waymo's self-driving lineup (Photo courtesy of Waymo)

Waymo said it has raised $2.25 billion in new funding — adding its first non-Alphabet investors — and said it will likely bring in other first-round investors as its self-driving technology moves closer to commercialization.

Why it matters: It's a strong signal that these investors believe Waymo — the self-driving tech startup from Google parent Alphabet — is leading the race to bring automated vehicles to market. But it's also a reminder that the technology is incredibly expensive, and eventually, parent company Alphabet expects Waymo to stand on its own.

NTSB warns about lax oversight of new car tech

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

There's mounting evidence that people put too much trust in driver-assistance features like Tesla Autopilot, but federal regulators aren't doing enough to ensure the systems are deployed safely, experts say.

Why it matters: Nearly 37,000 Americans die each year in highway accidents. As automated features become more common, the roads could get more dangerous — not safer — if drivers use the technology in unintended ways.