Saturday, June 9, 2018

Waymo is getting serious

First of all, in case you aren't following this sort of thing, the Uber crash I mentioned in my last post on self driving cars is actually a lot worse than it looked at first.  According to the NTSB report the victim of the crash had been detected but
emergency braking maneuvers are not enabled while the vehicle is under computer control, to reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior. The vehicle operator is relied on to intervene and take action. The system is not designed to alert the operator.
 which makes me wonder if this rises to the level of criminal negligence.  Certainly there are currently no localities that are allowing Uber to test on their roads which might be the end of Uber's program.

Tesla has also been in the news with some crashes involving its cars running on autopilot.  But autopilot of the sort you normally have in a boat or plane or one of Tesla's cars isn't full self driving.  The pilot or driver is supposed to remain on alert and react if the vehicle starts to do something unsafe.  In a plane or boat normally this involves noticing and reacting in the space of a couple of minute or so.  But in a car you might need to react in seconds which makes this whole approach much more dangerous.

The NHTSA defines a number of levels of autonomy.

Levels 0 and 1 aren't a problem because the user is always going to have to be paying attention.  Well, no more of a problem than we're already dealing with.  Levels 4 or 5 are fine because the user doesn't need to pay attention.  The car may get stuck but it can be trusted to pull over to the side of the road while the driver prepares to drive.  But levels 2 and 3 where the driver has to remain alert while not doing anything which I don't think is very realistic.

In contrast to all of this, it looks like Google's self driving car spinoff Waymo is doing everything right.  They're going straight for level 4 or 5.  They're testing carefully and not taking shortcuts like Uber.  And they've been working on the problem since 2009 having just accumulated 7 million miles of driving which is pretty impressive.  Going by some stats off Wikipedia a fatal accident happens around once every 2 million miles and Google hasn't had one yet.  There have been some accidents, even serious ones like this one recently, but that was a vehicle swerving into an oncoming lane and hitting the Waymo car.  In every incident I've heard of the Waymo car was not at fault so I think we can say at this point that Waymo cars are safer than human drivers, on average.

But now Waymo has just ordered 62,000 minivans from Crysler.  They'd been giving rides for free to people around Phoenix but only with a human driver monitoring things.  But with tens of thousands of cars they're going to be looking to be going fully autonomous.  It looks like fully autonomous self driving cars are about to actually be a practical thing, at least in Phoenix or whatever city those 60,000 cars will be serving.

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