Waymo gives feds more info on safety

San Francisco Chronicle - - BUSINESS REPORT - By Michael Laris

To help keep tabs on the safety of driverless cars rolling around U.S. cities, the fed­eral govern­ment last year, and again last month, sug­gested that tech firms and car com­pa­nies sub­mit a safety check­list.

None of the com­pa­nies — work­ing in an in­tensely com­pet­i­tive, po­ten­tially lu­cra­tive and ever-chang­ing field — rushed to take Wash­ing­ton up on its of­fer. Un­til now. Waymo, for­merly Google’s self-driv­ing car project, sub­mit­ted a 43-page safety re­port to the U.S. Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion on Thurs­day, of­fer­ing the most de­tailed de­scrip­tion yet of how it — or any other com­pany — equips and trains ve­hi­cles to avoid the range of mun­dane and out­ra­geous problems that are part of driv­ing in Amer­ica.

“We’ve staged peo­ple jump­ing out of can­vas bags or Porta Pot­ties on the side of the road, skate­board­ers ly­ing on their boards, and thrown stacks of pa­per in front of our sen­sors,” ac­cord-

ing to the re­port, which de­scribes how com­pany en­gi­neers use a 91-acre Cal­i­for­nia test fa­cil­ity mocked up like a city, as well as com­puter sim­u­la­tions cover­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of vari­a­tions of pos­si­ble road­side sce­nar­ios.

The Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion has sug­gested a set of 28 “be­hav­ioral com­pe­ten­cies,” or ba­sic things a robo­car should be able to do. Some are ex­ceed­ingly ba­sic (“De­tect and Re­spond to Stopped Ve­hi­cles,” “Nav­i­gate In­ter­sec­tions and Per­form Turns”) to the more in­tri­cate (“Re­spond to Ci­ti­zens Di­rect­ing Traf­fic Af­ter a Crash.”)

Waymo lists an­other 19 ex­am­ples it uses for test­ing, say­ing its cars must be able to “de­tect and re­spond” to an­i­mals, mo­tor­cy­clists, school buses, slip­pery roads, unan­tic­i­pated weather, and faded or miss­ing road signs, among other things.

The com­pany says it has used fed­eral data on hu­man crashes to fo­cus its ef­forts on im­prov­ing its soft­ware-and-sen­sor driv­ers. Top prob­lem sce­nar­ios for flesh-and­blood driv­ers in­clude rear-end crashes, turn­ing or cross­ing at in­ter­sec­tions, run­ning off the edge of the road and chang­ing lanes. So those “fig­ure promi­nently in the eval­u­a­tion of our ve­hi­cles,” ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

And then nu­mer­ous riffs are cre­ated on them.

“We can mul­ti­ply this one tricky left turn to ex­plore thou­sands of vari­able sce­nar­ios and ‘what ifs?’ Through a process called fuzzing, we al­ter the speed of on­com­ing ve­hi­cles and the tim­ing of traf­fic lights to make sure our ve­hi­cles can still find a safe gap in traf­fic,” the re­port says. “The scene can be made busier and more com­plex by adding sim­u­lated pedes­tri­ans, mo­tor­cy­cles ‘split­ting the lane,’ or even jog­gers zigzag­ging across the street.”

While such re­ports are now vol­un­tary, the House and Sen­ate have each passed bills that would re­quire com­pa­nies to sub­mit safety as­sess­ments in the com­ing years.

Some road-safety ad­vo­cates ar­gue that driverless cars should be re­quired to pass ex­plicit safety tests be­fore be­ing un­leashed on the roads, just as young hu­man driv­ers would. And they say the fed­eral govern­ment has taken a dan­ger­ously lais­sez-faire ap­proach to the bur­geon­ing in­dus­try.

But with tens of thou­sands of peo­ple killed each year on U.S. roads alone, driverless firms prom­ise big im­prove­ments over­all. Waymo ex­ec­u­tives say their safety re­port is part of an ef­fort to be more trans­par­ent about their ex­pe­ri­ences, which they hope will be good for pub­lic un­der­stand­ing — and busi­ness.

“This over­view of our safety pro­gram re­flects the im­por­tant lessons learned through the 3.5 mil­lion miles Waymo’s ve­hi­cles have self-driven on pub­lic roads, and bil­lions of miles of sim­u­lated driv­ing, over the last eight years,” Waymo CEO John Kraf­cik wrote in a let­ter Thurs­day to U.S. Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary Elaine Chao.

Misha Fried­man / Bloomberg

CEO John Kraf­cik says Waymo’s ve­hi­cles have self-driven 3.5 mil­lion miles on pub­lic roads.

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