Waymo’s Latest Moves Show How Critical Safety Is for AVs

The self-driving car industry could live or die on its safety record. Waymo’s hiring of a chief safety officer, and changes that it reportedly has made to its emerging robotaxi service in Phoenix, suggest the company knows it.

The Google-backed autonomous mobility startup has named former National Transportation Safety Board chairman Deborah Hersman as its first chief safety officer. The announcement of her hiring on November 27, along with the appointment of Waymo’s first chief commercial officer, Amee Chande, signaled the company is getting closer to launching a paid service.

That step has been expected by the end of the year.

Hersman’s hiring also came the same day as a report that Waymo has shown renewed caution about the safety of its autonomous ride-hailing operation. Tech news site The Information, citing unnamed sources, said the company has put human drivers back into its self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans in Phoenix after operating some of them as completely driverless vehicles.

In other cases, Waymo has added secondary drivers where there had been just one on board, according to the story. The company has also added cameras trained on safety drivers behind the wheel to detect if they are falling asleep, citing a driver fatigue problem, the report noted.

Hersman will join Waymo in January and will report directly to CEO John Krafcik. Most recently, she was CEO of the National Safety Council, a nonprofit that promotes efforts to prevent fatal injuries on the road and in homes and workplaces.

Waymo is just the latest company working on AVs to hire a former federal safety official. In May, Uber brought in former NTSB chairman Christopher Hart as an advisor. Mark Rosekind, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is chief safety innovation officer at startup Zoox.

The AV business has no shortage of challenges, including the vast amount of training that self-driving systems need and the uncertain prospects for the new business models to pay off billions invested in development. But persuading the public and regulators that the cars are safe may be both the most daunting and the most at risk of sudden failure.

The fatal crash involving an Uber autonomous SUV in March showed what just one tragedy can do to public opinion and a self-driving program. Some surveys taken after the incident showed declining support for, and interest in, driverless cars. Uber ended all its AV testing on public roads and even shut down its autonomous truck program. More than six months later, Uber is just beginning to restart public AV testing, this time under intense public and regulatory scrutiny.

Investigations of the Tempe crash are still ongoing, but a police report said the single safety driver in the Uber Volvo X90 SUV was watching videos on her phone just before the incident. Shortly before the crash, Uber had cut back from two safety drivers per vehicle to one, which required that driver to spend part of their time monitoring the self-driving system, according to a recent Bloomberg report.

Long hours behind the wheel of a vehicle that mostly drives itself can be a formula for inattention, automation analysts say. A safety driver who fell asleep played a role in a recent Waymo crash, according to another piece by The Information.

If Waymo is showing caution with significant changes to ensure its vehicles are safe before they’re fully driverless, it wouldn’t be out of character. Krafcik has been careful lately not to over-promise progress in self-driving, reportedly predicting it will take decades before autonomous cars are ubiquitous and there will always be limits to where AVs can go.

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.


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