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Are Autonomous Cars Ready To Ditch The Backup Driver?

Autonomous

Two years ago on my daily commute to work in Chandler, Arizona, I noticed something new sharing the roads with me: a fleet of white cars with a funny contraption on top of it, and prominent decals on the side labeled “Google” and “Self-Driving Car.” I snapped the photo below the first time I saw one up close.

(Click to enlarge)

Chandler had become one of the test sites for Google’s autonomous vehicle (AV) program. Today, the “Google” decal has been replaced with “Waymo,” the company Google created to commercialize its AV technology, but the fleet of Lexus RX 450h SUV hybrids is still going strong.

The cars have a human driver behind the steering wheel ready to take control if needed, but according to Google, those interventions have been few. In 2016 Waymo drove 635,868 miles autonomously in California and reported an average of only one disengagement every 5,128 miles to the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

My Observations

I have a short three-mile commute to work, but I see two to four of these cars on average each day. Today, for example, I made the round-trip to and from work, taking a slightly different route each way, and I encountered four Waymo cars.

As an engineer, I am intensely curious about how these vehicles behave, so I have observed them closely. Since 2015, I have taken more than a hundred pictures and video clips of them, in many different situations, and I have observed them do some strange things. At least, strange from the perspective of a human driver.

Once I was stopped at a stoplight. One of the AVs approached the light at a 90-degree angle from me to my left and made a left turn. But it turned too tightly, going directly into the turn lane of oncoming traffic (which was stopped at the light directly across from me). It stopped well short of hitting the car stopped there and then adjusted its turn back into the proper lane. (I don’t know if the human driver intervened, or perhaps it was under human control at the time).

Recently, one of the cars was behind me as I was driving through my neighborhood. Ahead of me was a landscaper, whose trailer was blocking the bicycle path and part of the road. As I approached, I looked ahead and simply moved to the left around the trailer (as any human driver would). But I watched in my rearview mirror as the AV came to a complete stop and just sat there behind the trailer. I never saw it move before I lost sight of it. It seemed like the car had encountered an unusual situation, and wasn’t quite sure what to do.

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Even after I started working on this article, I was behind a Waymo AV at a stoplight. It was turning left, and there was a car opposite turning left. But the car opposite was slightly blocking the view of oncoming traffic. I could move my head slightly and see that there was nothing coming, but the Waymo AV’s sensors apparently could not. So it sat there, partially in the intersection, slowly creeping forward. It probably took it 10 seconds longer to navigate the turn than it would have taken a human driver.

Am I Doing It Wrong?

I have often noted these sorts of long pauses when the situation seems to be uncertain, or perhaps deemed to be of higher risk. I have seen these cars stopped at a stop sign for probably 10 full seconds, even when there is no cross traffic. They also always pause longer than a human driver when a red light turns green. In other words, they seem to be playing things ultra-cautious.

The behavior of these cars has even caused me to question my own driving style. For instance, after signaling, I have seen these cars change lanes in under half the time of most human drivers. I check my mirrors, signal, check my mirrors again, glance over my shoulder and move over slowly just in case I missed someone in my blind spot.

Last year I was directly behind one of those cars at a red light, and I was shooting a short video clip on my phone. We were both making a right turn. When the light changed, there was the inevitable delay, but then when the car turned it accelerated away from me around the turn. For me, the centrifugal force I feel when making a turn deters me from accelerating much during the turn.

These cars have been involved in very few accidents, but I was once nearly one of them. I had to make a left turn into a curve with limited visibility. One of the Waymo cars came around the corner to my left just as I turned, and while it rapidly slowed down, it was a close call. Again, I have no way of knowing whether it was in autonomous mode, but it felt like the car was going a bit fast given the blind curve.

Of course, since I am not in these cars, I can only make assumptions about whether any of these events happened in autonomous mode. But some of my encounters did make me wonder just how close these cars were to ditching the human driver.

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Thus, I read with great interest that I will now start seeing these cars on the road without a driver. Last week Waymo announced that the human backup driver will be removed from behind the steering wheel in Chandler and that the cars will now be tested with only an employee in the back seat.

Conclusions

Throughout my career, I have tried to live as close as possible to my job to minimize a commute. However, if I could be relieved from the tedium of driving myself, it would open up all kinds of new possibilities. If I could get some work done on a 45-minute commute, it wouldn’t be such a big deal.

Thus, I have watched Waymo’s tests with great interest. As an engineer, safety in design is always at the forefront of my mind. Most of my observations suggested that there is a lot of safety built into these cars. If the numbers bear out that these vehicles are statistically less likely to be in an accident, then the public should gain confidence in them.

Removing the human driver is another step in the evolution of AVs; one that I will happily get to continue watching up close. Because a car that will free me from the chore of driving while getting me to my destination with less risk of accident — now that’s a winning proposition.

By Robert Rapier

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