Waymo Video Shows How Self-Driving Car Avoids Potentially Deadly Wreck
Waymo, the self-driving car company that spun out of Google in late 2016, announced on Wednesday that its vehicles had driven 10 million miles, by far the longest distance driven by totally self-driving vehicles among companies developing the technology. And as Waymo looks to offer public rides in Phoenix by the end of the year, new footage released with the news shows a few real-world scenarios that all might have been deadly just a few years ago.
The most striking example in the video (full video above, clip below) shows a car in Arizona running a red light through an intersection, and the Waymo vehicle stopping to avoid being “t-boned” by the oncoming, speeding car.
“While we’ve made great strides thanks to these 10 million miles, the next 10 million will focus on turning our advanced technology into a service that people will use and love,” writes Waymo CEO John Krafcik in a Medium post that breaks the news.
Waymo intends to make its self-driving vehicles — many of them Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans — available for people in Phoenix to hail by the end of the year. About 400 “early riders” in the Arizona city have been using Waymo for more than a year, taking trips around town.
Footage from some of those trips was released by Waymo on Wednesday. In a side-by-side edit, we can see what the car sees: Using radars and lasers, it navigates obstacles. We also see what humans see while driving to compare the two. It’s impressive to see the technology in action, and the deliberate style of the driving seen in the video may nudge the broader reputation of autonomous cars back into the public’s good graces. But is the progress of Waymo, along with videos like the one released Wednesday, enough to convince people? Below the images, we explore that thorny topic.
Is Self-Driving Technology Safe Enough to Regain Public Trust?
The death in Phoenix of a pedestrian because of an Uber test vehicle and fatal accidents involving Tesla Autopilot have greatly slowed predictions about the acceptance and trust in the new technology. Uber has since stopped testing its vehicles on public streets, racking up more than three million miles. Meanwhile, Tesla’s just-released Software Version 9.0 will slowly roll out a “Navigate on Autopilot” feature that will “guide a car from a highway’s on-ramp to off-ramp, including suggesting lane changes, navigating highway interchanges and taking exits. It’s designed to make finding and following the most efficient path to your destination even easier on the highway when Autopilot is in use.”
In May, the travel group AAA reported the results of a survey conducted the month prior that showed a whopping 73 percent of American drivers were too afraid to ride in a fully self-driving car, marking a 10 percent increase from December 2017.
Meet Google’s “Early Riders”
Waymo says the age range of riders in the test program is between 9 and 69 years old, and their experiences riding alone in the self-driving vehicles (though many times there is a Waymo employee in the car) seem as human as the cars are robotic.
“There’s a jiggly-ness about the ride, it’s slow around people or trees and can be slow to turn in an intersection, but it also feels very safe,” Barbara Adams, 68, of Tempe, told USA Today in a story published Wednesday.
Another rider interviewed by USA Today, Lilla Gaffney, 29, gave this endorsement: “One time, the Waymo paused before turning, and I wondered why. Then a car ran the red light and crashed into the median. It saw that car way before I did.”
Gaffney’s story about Waymo stopping to avoid a collision with a vehicle that had run a red light comes after nearly a decade of development. Nathaniel Fairfield, the Principal Software Engineer at Waymo, who has worked on the project since 2009, appears in the video released on Wednesday, sees a future where Waymo vehicles are thought of as just very careful drivers.
It’s a boring, safe future, “and that’s super exciting,” Fairfield says in the video.
“It doesn’t get sleepy or drowsy or drunk, or distracted by cell phones or distracted by children in the back seat,” Fairfield says. “The car is always paying attention to all of these factors and trying to think ahead.”