There has been a lot of commentary and concern over recent autonomous vehicle testing accidents over the past few months, most notably since the fatal accident involving Elaine Herzberg and an Uber autonomous test vehicle. In that case, the safety driver was blamed for not reacting to Ms. Herzberg’s presence in the road quickly enough to avoid a collision.
Waymo, generally acknowledged as the industry leader, has had two crashes in the past 5 weeks, both also blamed on a safety driver. This week, Waymo released details on a non-fatal but still serious crash involving a motorcyclist to go along with a previous accident where the safety driver apparently dozed off, resulting in a less severe crash.
Phil Koopman, our co-founder and CTO comments:
Aren’t the safety drivers supposed to be the fail-safe for an autonomy failure? If we can’t trust the safety drivers to be reliable, what exactly is keeping all these public road tests safe?
If I were running Waymo’s safety program (which I’m not), as a minimum I’d hold a 24 hour testing stand-down to find out whether this is just an unlucky coincidence or a trend. The next step should be a public explanation as to why we should believe these are not a trend. Assuming that two events is just a weird coincidence is how you get a third mishap.
And I’d make sure I had the data to prove that my road testing program was really safe enough. Surely data proving that safety drivers are alert and engaged must be available to Waymo. (If not, how do they know they are testing safely?) Hard to see how keeping safety driver performance data secret protects their autonomy secret sauce.
It is possible there is a no-man’s land between safe road testing and full autonomy. That happens when the vehicle fails so seldom that drivers can’t remain alert and engaged. Perhaps they fall asleep. Perhaps they lose situational awareness about motorcycles in the area. But the vehicles might still malfunction often enough that they aren’t at least as safe as a human driver.
The same issue of whether human safety drivers can be effective as autonomy improves apply to everyone testing on public roads, not just Waymo. Restoring public faith in the technology requires transparency. Here’s a concrete chance for Waymo to be transparent about road testing safety.