Safety driver in Waymo autonomous car causes collision with biker

A so-called “safety driver” sits behind the wheel of an autonomous car during testing and is supposed to be ready to take over should an unusually difficult situation occur while on the road.

Waymo had to admit this week that one of its safety drivers recently caused an accident within seconds of taking the vehicle out of autonomous mode.

The incident occurred near the headquarters of its parent company, Alphabet, in Mountain View, California, and put a motorcyclist in the hospital, though the extent of his or her injuries isn’t clear.

So, what happened? According to Waymo CEO John Krafcik, the safety driver took control of the car at a speed of about 21 mph after seeing a passenger car to the left make a sudden move toward the lane in which the Waymo car was traveling.

Waymo’s driver reacted to the situation by quickly moving the vehicle into the right lane, but in doing so, failed to notice a motorcyclist — traveling at about 28 mph — who had just moved from behind the Waymo vehicle into the right lane in order to pass it.

“As a result, our vehicle’s rear right bumper came into contact with the motorcycle,” Krafcik wrote in a post describing what happened.

An official accident report submitted by Waymo noted that the motorcyclist sustained injuries and was taken to a hospital for treatment, while the Waymo car sustained “minor damage” to the rear bumper.

“Testing on public roads is vital”

“Testing on public roads is vital to the safe development of self-driving technology, and we’re sorry that a member of the community was injured in a collision with one of our cars,” Krafcik wrote in his post. “We recognize the impact this can have on community trust. We hold ourselves to the highest standard, and we are always working to improve and refine our testing program.”

Krafcik added that Waymo’s drivers undergo “rigorous” training on how to respond to sudden incidents on the road, but that in this case, the driver “reacted quickly to avoid what he thought would be a collision, but his response contributed to another.”

Interestingly, Waymo’s CEO claimed that had the driver left the car in autonomous mode, its technology “would have avoided the collision by taking a safer course of action.” Considering how the self-driving car is laden with sensors to give it 360-degree awareness, this certainly seems possible.

Krafcik elaborated: “While our test driver’s focus was on the car ahead, our self-driving system was simultaneously tracking the position, direction, and speed of every object around it. Crucially, our technology correctly anticipated and predicted the future behavior of both the merging vehicle and the motorcyclist. Our simulation shows the self-driving system would have responded to the passenger car by reducing our vehicle’s speed, and nudging slightly in our own lane, avoiding a collision.” With that in mind, it sounds like Waymo would do well to get its fully driverless cars (that is, cars without a safety driver) onto the streets of Mountain View sooner rather than later.

Many observers will see Waymo’s human-caused accident as the perfect argument for expediting the development of autonomous vehicles, but with driverless-car technology being tested on public roads by more than 50 companies in California alone, it’s inevitable that occasional accidents — whether the result of safety drivers, regular drivers, or faults with the technology — are going to occur.

Of course, even one accident is one too many, certainly if it results in an injury or worse. The industry was rocked earlier this year when a self-driving car being tested by Uber knocked down and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. The technology failed to spot the pedestrian in the dark, but the safety driver didn’t notice the error and so had no chance to intervene.

Cars

Semi-autonomous and always available: A peek into the near future of car rental

Soon we will see connected rental fleets with a dedicated lane at airports for self-driving cars, where drivers control the car to the airport, and then the empty car drives itself to the rental lot.
Cars

Mercedes-Benz safety-car concept monitors the road ahead and your kids

The Mercedes-Benz Experimental Safety Vehicle 2019 was designed for a world where humans and machines share driving duties. It can use lights to communicate with other road users and even monitor an infant's vital signs.
Cars

Volvo’s new app walks you through what to do after an accident

Volvo's Accident Advisor sends information on what to do after an accident directly to a driver's smartphone. Drivers can also use it to notify their insurance companies and find a repair shop.
Mobile

Quiet please! Uber offers a silent mode so you don’t have to chat

Don't feel like chatting to your Uber driver but find it hard to say? That's no longer a problem for users of Uber's premium service as the app now lets you inform the driver ahead of arrival.
Cars

Aston Martin will revive James Bond’s DB5 at a price only Goldfinger can afford

Aston Martin will build 25 new versions of the DB5 from the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger, complete with gadgets. These "continuation cars" will cost millions of dollars, but won't be road legal.
Cars

Hyundai wants to make sure you’re seeing the outside world, not inhaling it

Hyundai is developing an intelligent air purification system for its cars that continuously monitors the quality of the air inside the cabin, and cleans it when it detects the presence of harmful particulates.
Cars

Car designers can predict your future desires. This is how they do it

Automakers employ small armies of designers, and they’re relentless about asking consumers what they want. So, how do you get from the voice of the customer to the designer’s pen, and why does it go wrong so often?
Cars

Nissan claims its upgraded ProPilot system enables hands-off highway driving

Nissan is launching a new version of its ProPilot Assist system that's much smarter than the current version. It can handle acceleration, braking, and steering on highways, while using a camera to ensure the driver doesn't fall asleep.
Product Review

Mercedes-Benz fires its first salvo in the luxury electrification war

The EQC is Mercedes-Benz's answer to the Tesla threat, bringing performance, tech features, and luxury to the growing electric SUV segment. We headed to Norway, the electric car capital of the world, to get a taste of it.
Cars

2020 GMC Sierra sees a bunch of updates, including adaptive cruise

GMC announced updates to its 2020 GMC Sierra pickup truck, including much-needed adaptive cruise control, a 3.0-liter turbo-diesel engine option, improved towing cameras, and expanded availability of the 10-speed automatic transmission.
Home Theater

Why you can’t buy Car Thing, Spotify’s first hardware device

Spotify created a voice-activated, in-car device that lets you listen to music and podcasts. But Car Thing, as it is known, is not for sale. Instead, it will be used to gather data from a limited set of customers.
Cars

Ford gears up to build rugged, capable hybrid trucks and SUVs

Ford is planning to put hybrid powertrains into big trucks and SUVs, and doesn't want to sacrifice things like towing capacity and off-road capability. A new hybrid system may help do that.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Insect drones and kinetic sculpture robots

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it's fun to gawk!
Cars

Walmart slashes prices on electric hybrid bicycles for National Bike Month

Electric bikes can be economical, convenient, and fun. Heading into summer, Walmart slashed the prices for two pedal-assist Hyper E-ride Mountain and City Electric Hybrid Bikes by 40%. We found a variety of e-rides for under $1,000.