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.

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