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You might not know it, but chances are you’ve seen some of Joel Johnson’s work. Better known as YouTuber JJRicks, he is the most prolific documenter of Waymo One Level 4 robotaxis in Chandler, Arizona – and probably the most frequent passenger.
According to his records, he’s taken 146 rides over the last two years, both of the safety driver and fully driverless variety. He’s had various disengagements along the way and even required Waymo’s roadside assistance, which is when a human Waymo employee needs to manually take over the vehicle as it can’t navigate a given situation.
But the Waymo robotaxi ride he took on May 3 is one he’ll never forget. You can watch the full ride in JJRicks’ video above, but the interesting parts start around the 11-minute mark. The Waymo robotaxi needs to make a right turn onto a multi-lane main road, but the far right lane was closed off by orange construction cones. And, boy, did they confuse the vehicle.
After the planning system can’t figure out how to handle the situation, it calls for roadside assistance. A human was supposed to arrive in mere minutes to get the car unstuck. However, before the assistance arrived, the Waymo robotaxi pulled out into the road, only to immediately stop again, this time blocking traffic. In fact, the Waymo robotaxi got stuck and took off again two more times before the roadside assistance employee could actually get into the vehicle, take over control and complete the ride.
As you’ll hear in the video, JJRicks asked Waymo how the roadside assistance program works. Waymo said it doesn’t assign its team members to individual vehicles, rather they patrol a particular area to cover multiple vehicles. The dispatcher said one-to-one assignment never existed, but JJRicks disagreed with that.
Waymo issued the following statement about the incident:
“While driving fully autonomously through an extended work zone, the Waymo Driver detected an unusual situation and requested the attention of a remote Fleet Response specialist to provide additional information. During that interaction the Fleet Response team provided incorrect guidance, which made it challenging for the Waymo Driver to resume its intended route, and required Waymo’s Roadside Assistance team to complete the trip. While the situation was not ideal, the Waymo Driver operated the vehicle safely until Roadside Assistance arrived. Throughout, Waymo’s team was in touch with the rider, who provided thoughtful and helpful feedback that allows us to continue learning and improving the Waymo Driver. Our team has already assessed the event and improved our operational process.”
According to his spreadsheet, JJRicks has taken seven disengagement-free Waymo One rides since the incident. “These cars have almost never made me actually scared that they’re going to do something dangerous, hard to shake my trust at this point,” he said. “I knew I’d make it out in one piece.”
I’m a big fan of what Waymo is doing. That’s why it made our 2020 RBR50 list. We share this not to criticize, but because the video highlights the challenges of scaling autonomous vehicles. Every company developing autonomous vehicles has had similar incidents, and others have had far worse. An Uber autonomous vehicle killed a woman in 2018. And Tesla, well, where do we even begin with its blatant disregard for safety and autonomous vehicles?
Waymo is in a different stratosphere than the two aforementioned companies. It’s rightfully considered the leader in the industry. But we don’t often see its mishaps on camera. And this one, which was the result of a simple change to road conditions, shows Level 5 autonomous vehicles remain a long, long way off. The Society of Automotive Engineers International recently changed the details of its six-level classification of autonomous driving capability. It defines Level 5, in part, as a system that can “drive everywhere in all conditions.”
Waymo has been mapping and operating in Chandler for years. It knows these roads better than any roads in the world, yet it struggled with a simple, everyday lane closure. After all these years, navigating around traffic cones seems like it should be an easy maneuver. Not to mention, there were kinks communicating with the roadside assistance team, although those should be easier to work out than the edge cases the autonomous driving system will encounter. The Waymo One service operates in about an 80-square-mile radius of Arizona, according to Waymo.
IEEE Spectrum recently interviewed Nathaniel Fairfield, who leads the behavior team at Waymo. He said some interesting things about the challenges of construction zones and when human assistance is needed. Fairfield said humans do not teleoperate the Level 4 Waymo One vehicles, and JJRicks’ video seems to confirm that statement, although we don’t know for sure.
“Imagine you’re out driving and you come up to a ‘road closed’ sign ahead,” said Fairfield. “You may pause for a bit as you look for a “Detour” sign to show you how to get around it or if you don’t see that, start preparing to turn around from that road and create your own detour or new route. The Waymo Driver does the same thing as it evaluates how to plot the best path forward. In a case like this where the road is fully blocked, it can call on our Fleet Response specialists to provide advice on what route might be better or more efficient and then take that input, combine it with the information it has from the onboard map and what it’s seeing in real time via the sensors, and choose the best way to proceed.”
Three of Waymo’s top executives have recently left the company, including former CEO John Krafcik. But the Alphabet subsidiary is moving forward. Earlier this week Reuters reported that Waymo applied for permits to start charging for rides and deliveries in San Francisco using its autonomous vehicles. Cruise submitted a similar permit, but neither company said when they intend to launch these services.