At 7:19 a.m. on October 19, 2018, the rider of a 2007 Honda Rebel made the mistake of passing a vehicle on the right on El Camino Real in Mountain View, California during heavy commuter traffic. Call it a rookie mistake or hurried negligence, but there was more at stake on that Friday morning in Silicon Valley that sent the rider to the hospital.

Waymo CEO John Krafcik and the company’s flagship vehicle. [Waymo]
According to the Department of Motor Vehicles traffic collision report filed by the driver of the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica, a passenger vehicle in Lane 1 to the left of the Pacifica began to change lanes into Lane 2 to avoid a box truck blocking two lanes of traffic. Traveling at 21 mph, the Pacifica’s driver began changing lanes into Lane 3. But the Honda Rebel — traveling at approximately 28 mph behind the Pacifica — had just entered Lane 3 to overtake the Chrysler on its right. The Pacifica and Rebel collided at the Chrysler’s right rear corner. The motorcyclist reported injuries and was transported to a local hospital for treatment. The Chrysler sustained minor damage to the rear bumper.

The difference between this collision and others was that the Chrysler Pacifica was a Waymo Autonomous Vehicle. Before the passenger vehicle cut in front to avoid the box truck, the Waymo vehicle was in self-driving mode. Acting on instinct, Waymo’s test driver took manual control of the AV, disengaging from self-driving mode and colliding with the motorcycle.

Waymo reports a decade of testing over 10 million miles on city streets and private facilities. In a recent corporate blog written by CEO John Krafcik, he admitted that the AV driver took the wrong course of action.

A Waymo AV in Mountain View, California [Waymo]
“Our review of this incident confirmed that our technology would have avoided the collision by taking a safer course of action,” Krafcik wrote. “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.

“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,” he added. “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.

“As professional vehicle operators, our test drivers undergo rigorous training that includes defensive driving courses, including guidance on responding to fast-moving scenarios on the road. However, some dynamic situations still challenge human drivers. People are often called upon to make split second decisions with insufficient context. In this case, our test driver reacted quickly to avoid what he thought would be a collision, but his response contributed to another.”

The familiar white Waymo Chrysler Pacifica. [Waymo]
On October 30, Waymo received a permit from California’s DMV to test autonomous vehicles without human backup drivers on public roads, making the Google spin-off the first company to receive permission to test unmanned self-driving cars in California.

According to the DMV permit, Waymo will be able to test around 36 self-driving vehicles without a driver in Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, and Sunnyvale. Waymo employees will be the first to take rides in the unmanned vehicles. The self-driving company has been allowed to test autonomous vehicles with safety drivers since 2014, one of 60 companies that are authorized to do so, the DMW said.

But a report from The Information (“Waymo’s Big Ambitions Slowed by Tech Trouble,” August 28, 2018) suggested Waymo’s self-driving technology struggles with more driving tasks than the Mountain View company has indicated. The publication said Waymo vehicles have difficulty making unprotected left turns, distinguishing between individuals in a large group, and merging into turn lanes and highway traffic, among other trouble areas.

“Incidents like this are what motivate all of us at Waymo to work diligently and safely to bring our technology to roads, because this is the type of situation self-driving vehicles can prevent,” Waymo CEO Krafcik wrote. “We designed our technology to see 360 degrees in every direction, at all times. This constant, vigilant monitoring of the car’s surroundings informs our technology’s driving decisions and can lead to safer outcomes.”

How Waymo tech works

As motorcyclists, should we take comfort in the idea of true driverless vehicles deciding what’s best for us, even when one of our own used poor judgement on a cold Friday morning in October? Would the Waymo van’s AI made the right decision to avoid colliding with the Honda Rebel?

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