Weekly Brief: Latest Driverless Crash Proves the Need

A Waymo self-diving vehicle was involved in a bizarre accident last month in Tempe, Arizona, police reports confirmed last week.

The accident happened when a disgruntled former Waymo safety driver, 31-year-old Raymond Tang, tracked down a vehicle in the Waymo fleet in the middle of the night, swerved in front of it, and hammered the brakes of his own car so hard that he gave the self-driving vehicle no choice but to slam into his bumper. Tang had worked at one of the third-party companies that Waymo uses to source its safety operators until he was fired last year for failing to meet its safety standards. After forcing the Waymo into an accident, Tang admitted that he was “brake-checking” the robo-taxi, which happened to be in manual mode at the time and whose safety driver had to be sent to a nearby hospital for injuries.

If ever there was a self-driving car crash that proves why we need self-driving cars, this is it! To be sure, self-driving cars are not infallible nor will they ever be. No matter how good autonomous tech gets, self-driving cars will still make mistakes. They will still get into accidents. They will still lead to some road-related deaths. It’s inevitable but one thing they won’t ever be is vindictive. They won’t be prone to road rage or distracted by Instagram. They won’t shave in traffic or eat on the go. They won’t have too many drinks at a party and stumble into their cars convinced of their own fitness to drive. They won’t fall asleep at the wheel, drive 30mph over the speed limit or get fired from their job and then settle the beef with their rear bumpers.

Let’s face it: human beings are, by and large, well intentioned people but lousy drivers and our unsteady actions behind the wheel, like those of the former Waymo employee, lead to millions of unnecessary injuries and hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths on roads around the world each year. Self-driving cars offer a different, safer prospect, one in which machines do the driving, undistracted, unfatigued, indifferent, while we humans are freed from the task of driving to do whatever we please while we are on the road — work, hang out with family, watch Netflix, drink booze, you name it.

Granted, the self-driving car industry has a long way to go before it can make this paradigm shift a reality. The flood of mainstream robo-taxis that we were promised in 2018 and 2019 has since materialized into little more than a trickle. Waymo remains the world’s only official commercial robo-taxi operation and it only has a thousand vehicles on the road in a single third tier American city. General Motors’ Cruise has gone silent after promising deployment last year. All this is operating in an environment with hardly any adverse regulations, full-throated support from the US federal government and the most ideal weather courtesy of desert climates in California, Las Vegas or Arizona.

Earlier this month a team of academics and developers out of Canada released a new virtual reality training course for self-driving cars focused on lousy winter conditions. It’s called the Canadian Adverse Driving Conditions (CADC) dataset. While unveiling it, the team noted how unprepared self-driving cars are, in their current state, for the winter conditions many of us are experiencing right now. Ice, freezing rain, snow, white outs that wreak havoc on our windshields, let alone the hyper-sensitive sensors, cameras and LiDAR systems upon which self-driving cars rely. Similar issues have also been raised by Russian autonomous driving pioneers in a recent winter driving competition held in Moscow.

Even if we get the technical challenges under control which, with another decade of investment and innovation, I believe we can, self-driving cars still have a long way to go toward earning public acceptance. No matter how safe they prove themselves to be, to many people they will still feel like a limitation on our freedom, a threat to our jobs and an annoyance to our communities.

In Tempe, Waymo cars have had rocks thrown at them, tires slashed, and windows smashed. The story of Raymond Tang is just the latest in a string of robo-taxi abuse. Presumably with time and exposure (and fewer delays at stop signs), this animosity should subside. Or it could intensify. Don’t expect truckers, taxi drivers and die-hard drivers to go quietly into the night. (Hear, hear! – Ed)

One comment

  1. Avatar Henry Ubik 17th February 2020 @ 6:20 pm

    You can be forward thinking but realize it’s a long way off from being 100% safe. Early adopters are willing to be some victims, not me!

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