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

Autonomous shuttle rides coming to New York City via Optimus Ride

Workers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in NY City will soon be able to make their way around the 300-acre industrial park in Optimus Ride's self-driving shuttles. The tech startup says it's the first trial of its kind in the state.
Cars

Protect yourself and your ride with our favorite dash cams

Dashboard cameras can assist drivers in car accident claims, settle speeding ticket disputes, and even catch glimpses of incoming meteors, among other things. Here, we've compiled a list of the most noteworthy offerings available.
Cars

Volvo wants to use speed limiters, in-car cameras, and data to reduce crashes

Volvo believes new tech is the best way to improve car safety. The Swedish automaker will let owners set speed limits when loaning out their cars, install cameras to monitor drivers, and use data to design better safety features.
Cars

Waymo boosts robo-taxi plans with new service center in Arizona

Waymo has announced plans for a facility in Phoenix, Arizona, that will help to service, maintain, and grow its fleet of autonomous Waymo One cars. The vehicles operate as part of the company's robo-taxi ridesharing service.
Cars

Vivint’s Car Guard keeps tabs on your vehicle when you’re not in it

A simple plug-in that you can place in just about any vehicle, Vivint's new Car Guard will automatically detect if your car is bumped, towed, or stolen and will alert you about it.
Cars

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLC coupe gets a tech upgrade, keeps quirky styling

The 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLC coupe debuts at the 2019 New York Auto Show with an upgraded infotainment system that incorporates Mercedes' digital assistant. The SUV launches later this year with turbocharged four-cylinder power.
Product Review

The Ferrari Portofino is the super stallion you’ll want to drive every day

With the introduction of the Portofino, Ferrari addresses the California T’s stylistic shortcomings while improving comfort, convenience, and performance. There’s little “entry-level” about this super stallion.
Cars

This modified Land Rover Discovery is heading to Africa to help fight malaria

A Land Rover Discovery will be used by the Mobile Malaria Project for a 3,900-mile trek across Africa to study malaria. The SUV is equipped with a mobile gene-sequencing laboratory, as well as everything necessary for serious off-roading.
Cars

BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe teased way ahead of its November debut

The BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe is coming to the United States, eventually. The new compact BMW won't be unveiled until the 2019 Los Angeles Auto Show in November. The Gran Coupe will be based on a front-wheel drive platform.
Cars

Tesla lets you skip the dealership, order a car from the comfort of your couch

Tesla has always bypassed traditional dealerships, and it has now adopted an online-only sales model that lets customers configure and order their car without leaving their couch. Here's what you need to know.
Cars

Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi group uses Microsoft cloud platform for connected cars

The Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance is launching a new cloud platform for its cars. Based on Microsoft Azure, the Alliance Intelligent Cloud will enable features like connected services and over-the-air updates.
Cars

The 2019 Toyota C-HR gains a popular tech feature as its price comes down

Toyota has updated the C-HR, its entry-level crossover, by adding an entry-level trim level to the lineup. Every model regardless of price also comes standard with an 8.0-inch touchscreen compatible with Apple CarPlay.
Product Review

2019 Volkswagen Jetta offers German refinement and tech at an affordable price

With enough tech to make villains jealous, the Volkswagen Jetta punches above its class as a forward-thinking sedan. Spacious, comfortable, and efficient, the Jetta is a refined offering. German refinement comes with a serious attitude.
Cars

The 2020 Porsche Cayenne Coupe is an exercise in form-over-function design

Porsche expanded its lineup of SUVs with a swoopier evolution of the Cayenne named Cayenne Coupe. Don't let the name fool you: it still has four doors. It stands out with a fastback-like roofline that's lower than the Cayenne's.