In short: One of Waymo’s self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans crashed this June after its backup driver not only fell asleep but managed to disengage the autopilot in doing so, The Information reports, citing sources familiar with the previously unreported incident. The vehicle crashed into a highway median as the idle driver accidentally touched its gas pedal, consequently activating its manual controls, albeit without waking up. The car withstood moderate damage and the person responsible for the crash isn’t employed by the company any longer, one insider claims.
Another source asserted that “a single bored human…with no monitoring and no backup is obviously a huge risk and criticized the Google spinoff for not doing “more” to address the human error risk, especially given how its executives talked about avoiding precisely such scenarios in the past. Waymo’s backup drivers in Phoenix, Arizona, work in pairs to mitigate the chances of similar accidents. Following the June incident, the company’s self-driving unit gathered its safety engineers to discuss the matter and claim they’re free to pause their work whenever they feel they need a rest. As most of its backup drivers are contractors working for between $20 and $25 per hour, they’re not inclined to take many breaks during their 35-hour work weeks, the report suggests. The financial incentive is the main factor pushing them to work more as Waymo’s managers are instructed not to base their performance reviews on mileage, insiders claim.
Background: The existence of the newly reported incident was revealed shortly after other sources claimed Waymo’s self-driving fleet is still struggling with the very basics of traffic participation such as unprotected left turns and maintaining speed without making sudden maneuvers due to false positive hazard readings such as floating bags. Despite those issues, the company that started as a Google moonshot project is widely believed to have access to the most advanced self-driving algorithms in the world, with its individual valuation presently hovering around $177 billion.
Impact: Waymo is believed to have already revamped its safety driver policies in order to account for the June incident, though the human error factor remains a significant hindrance to its efforts to test its still-far-from-perfect autonomous driving technologies. As seen on the example of Uber whose self-driving Volvo XC90 SUV killed a pedestrian in Tempe earlier this year while its backup driver was distracted, the technology industry still has ways to go until it’s able to commercialize solutions that can be described as secure.