A new month, a new milestone for Waymo, Google’s self-driving technology group. Nine million miles (14.4 million kilometers) were reached in autonomous mode, with a current rate of 25,000 miles (40,000 kilometers) added every day. The only company that came close was Uber with around 2 million miles. But they have (temporarily) stopped the efforts since March this year. And the other companies? They collectively have over one million kilometers, a fraction of Waymo’s achievements.
Of course, quantity is not quality, but in order to make sense of all those miles driving, their engineers have to give the cars tasks. And the simple fact that they keep driving so many miles every day means the engineers have plenty of new tasks for them. An indication for increasing quality of the technology.
If you live in Mountain View in California or in Chandler in Arizona, you see Waymo cars all the time doing their rounds. Here is a several minutes long video of encounters with Waymo cars that I had just in the past days in August. There are also moments where two or even three Waymo cars meet at the same intersection. And those encounters are only the ones where I had my camera ready.
At some of those moments one can also observe how the car is monitoring the situation. Here is an example at a traffic light, where the car wants to make a right turn. While it is green both for the car and pedestrians, the car hesitates, because it monitors two women standing on the walkway. The car observes the direction of the women’s faces to understand their intent. Do they want to cross or not? But those women stay and continue chatting, so after some hesitation the car decides it is safe to go and completes the right-turn-maneuver.
Doesn’t look that much spectacular, but it explains the criticism that was corroborated the past days. The advances and increased media attention also brings along critical reports. Some news from Chandler residents, with Chandler being a suburb of Phoenix in Arizona, where Waymo is testing a robotaxi service, made the rounds. And in the first moment it sounds like after all the money and effort spent by Waymo, that self-driving cars still look like pretty dumb drivers.
A resident complained about the erratic driving behavior of Waymo vehicles, who seem to stop in the middle of intersections without reason, and which almost made her hit such a car. A closer investigation reveals that the situation was a bit different than reported. The upset driver with an aggressive driving style was herself the reason why the Waymo-vehicle considered her a risk and stopped.
This picture above shows the intersection mentioned in the critical article by Chandler resident ‘Lisa Hargis’. Turning right isn’t so much the problem here, but turning left much more. For a left turn a vehicle has to find the right moment and gaps in the passing cars to get in.
In the situation mentioned, Lisa saw the Waymo-vehicle approaching the intersection from her opposite side. It aimed at making a right turn, while Lisa wanted to make a left turn into the same street.
But she was entering the intersection way too aggressively and the Waymo-vehicle considered her a risk. As we expect from a careful and safe autonomous vehicle, it stopped to avoid a collision.
We can accuse the Waymo vehicle of having a wrong view of the situation, or being too hesitant and better emulate a more fluid (whatever that means) human driving style. But the same critics will be the first wanting an autonomous vehicle to be super-safe and immediately drag the company to court, when one of their cars get into a crash.
As data shows the majority of collisions involving autonomous cars are caused by human drivers. The online-blog Axios did a tally of past crashes and this report confirms what we have suspected: humans are the worse drivers.
In autonomous mode while the autonomous vehicle (AV) was moving, 38 cars were involved, and only once the autonomous vehicles was to be blamed. While the AV was stopped, 24 collisions happened, all the fault of human drivers. In conventional mode – read: human driver – the cars were involved in 19 collisions, six of which were caused by the human driver in the autonomous vehicle. Also note that the majority of collisions during driving happened at low speeds, usually not faster than 5 to 15 miles per hour.
But not everything is bright and shiny. There are a lot of open challenges with the development of autonomous vehicles. Chandler and Mountain View are certainly ideal testing grounds with majority of the year sun shine, almost no rain, no snow, pretty good roads, not too much but not too little traffic, simple road grids, and a population with high affinity to technologies.
Additional challenges already faced today is that many drivers and pedestrians do not respect traffic rules and force autonomous vehicle developers to correct and compensate for the mistakes of others. Not only humans, but also other living beings make the life of autonomous vehicles a challenge – independent whether there is a human or a computer at the controls. Like in this example: chicken!
Or an elderly lady driving in circles in her wheel chair in the middle of the street chasing a duck.
Certainly, those are situations that cannot be predicted in the laboratory. And there are millions of such situations . That’s why it’s important to test autonomous vehicles in real life and drive millions and millions of miles. The more cars you have on the road, the faster they encounter such scenarios, the faster the cars improve. Such scenarios and the learning is then shared with all cars in the fleet
The next steps will bring those cars to other regions, where weather conditions may be less advantageous, where it’s raining and snowing more frequently, where the road conditions can vary a lot, like cobbles stones in those narrow European streets, where country specific traffic and road conditions add complexity, where nuances in traffic rules may come up, humans behave differently in traffic, and where users also want to drive off-road on dirt roads.
But you have to start somewhere, and at least 56 companies have today a test license for autonomous vehicles in California. Waymo is light years ahead of everyone else. All those companies should get our support, because honestly speaking – and to come back to the criticism at the beginning of this article – I rather prefer careful and hesitant autonomous cars that behave safely around me, than aggressive drivers like Lisa, who endanger me and others. 40,000 traffic fatalities every year in the U.S., or 3,500 fatalities in Germany are IMHO unacceptable.
This article has also been published in German.