Waymo Takes One Step Back after a Few Important Steps Forward

By: Bridget Clerkin December 17, 2018
Waymo’s autonomous vehicles are getting their safety drivers back after a couple of accidents sent into question the need for human intervention.
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In the ongoing race to perfect autonomous cars, Waymo may as well have been lapping its competition. Now, however, the Google spinoff company is going to need every second it has earned in that lead, as it’s now taking a self-imposed pit stop.

The autonomous car behemoth has reportedly begun re-instituting safety drivers back into their vehicles after more than a year of weaning the precautionary employees out from behind the wheel.

Previously, the backup motorists had been relegated to the backseat, or instructed to leave the vehicle all together. Now, Waymo’s programs in both Arizona and California are purportedly putting the humans back in the driver’s seat.

Plans have also been made to add “co-drivers” to the rides, in order to ensure that the primary safety driver remains awake and alert.

Waymo must have been particularly concerned with the issue, as it’s also been reported that the company will be running a new slate of tests on the cars in order to monitor for signs of fatigue and determine when action should be enabled by the vehicle to prevent an accident.

Such an about-face is rare in Silicon Valley. It's especially uncommon for the self-driving company, which has been bent on the progress of its product—sometimes allegedly even at the cost of safety.

The move also comes at an interesting time for Waymo, coinciding with several major milestones the company had just hit.

In California, it became the first business ever in the state to be issued a permit to test cars with no driver present. And in Arizona, Waymo has been preparing to take its driver-free taxi pilot to the masses, with a full-scale commercial venture scheduled to launch in early 2019.

But a rash of recent traffic incidents may have been enough to make the company think twice about forging ahead.

In early November, one of its driver-free vehicles in California was involved in an accident bad enough to send a motorcycle rider to the hospital. CEO John Krafcik clarified in a blog post that the issue had actually been caused by the safety driver, not the self-driving program.

And it was recently reported that this June, one of Waymo’s self-driving Chrysler Pacifica’s crashed onto the freeway after its driver had fallen asleep and inadvertently turned off the self-driving mode.

It’s yet to be determined how long the company will engage in the backpedaling, though it seems clear that an opening at the head of the autonomous pack may soon be available for any super-eager and prepared competitors.

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