Waymo gives feds more info on safety
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.
CEO John Krafcik says Waymo’s vehicles have self-driven 3.5 million miles on public roads.