7 Questions About Waymo’s Self-Driving Cars From Revelations in its Safety Report

We thought in the future people would be cooler.

DETROIT, MI - JANUARY 8: John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo, debuts a customized Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid that will be used for Google's autonomous vehicle program at the 2017 North American International Auto Show on January 8, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. Approximately 5000 journalists from around the world and nearly 800,000 people are expected to attend the NAIAS between January 8th and January 22nd to see the more than 750 vehicles and numerous interactive displays. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Waymo CEO John Krafcik with one of their customized Chrysler Pacificas. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Waymo released a report yesterday on the safety of its self driving vehicles. The company is the self-driving car division of Alphabet (GOOGL), which also owns Google. We recently wrote about how the value proposition for Mountain View is ongoing subscriptions from the owners who rely on cloud-based driving systems.

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Recode covered it from a user experience perspective, and Ars Technica highlighted five points that the report illuminated about the company. Despite the fact that report is technically aimed at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it’s fair to read it as written more for public relations than rulemakers. Waymo understands that public is nervous about ceding control of the wheel (actually, there won’t be a steering wheel at all), so this is its latest effort at reassurance.

Reading between lines, some questions jumped out at us. These questions are points of curiosity or mild concerns, but on balance it seems evident that these cars are coming soon and the roadways will be a lot less ragey with each new robot car on the road.

But here’s some stuff this report left us wondering about:

    • Does the hive mind of these cars make decisions about other cars? The hardest thing for everyone to wrap their head around about these cars is this: really, all the cars are driven by the same driver. Google has never explained how much this is true or not, but it is fair to say that any experience one car has ultimately informs every other car. So how much is car B using observations made by car B as it plans its route. For example, if one car observers a driver behaving in a super aggressive fashion, will cars a mile or so in any direction that car might potentially head start maneuvering to the slow lane? Or will cars only use real time data that that individual car can see itself? These questions probably phrase it too simply. The real question is: how much will one cars observations inform another car’s route?
    • Will people actually be able to make sense of the display or is just marketing? The report states that vehicles will display “static road elements like traffic lights, stop signs,
      and dynamic agents in the environment such as vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians. That way, riders can understand what the vehicle is perceiving and responding to.” Sounds cool, but when the first hybrid cars came out they used to display weird animations of how power moved through the engine. It didn’t make any sense. It seemed like it was just there to impress people without delivering any real information. Will the on-screen display be any different?
    • Will these cars be annoyingly cautious around bikes? Cyclists come up over and over throughout the report, as if people on bikes are a giant aggravation for the team. “For example, if our software perceives that an adjacent lane ahead is closed due to construction, and predicts that a cyclist in that lane will move over, our planner can make the decision to slow down or make room for the cyclist well ahead of time,” the report states. There’s cautious and then there’s aggravatingly cautious. Here’s a thing that real world drivers do that is unnecessary and not especially safe. It’s not unusual to see a real world driver refuse to pass a cyclist even when there is a ton of room to get by, which just makes them conscious a two-ton pile of metal is hovering right behind them. It’s good that that these cars are looking for bikes and respecting their right to the road, but we hope they will also roll on by with due haste.
    • How big of a pain will rain be? The report makes it very clear that these cars are very, very ready to engage in a maneuver human drivers hardly ever make: pulling over to the side of the road and waiting for things to look better. One situation that the report seems to suggest these cars aren’t quite ready for: heavy rain. So will the cars just not roll out if a storm is eminent? And if there is a sudden and surprising downpour, will business people be standing outside hailing cabs in a torrent?
    • What’s the hourly rate to be a cyclist riding around Waymo’s testing facility not getting hit? This photo of some worker riding a bike on one of Waymo’s closed courses while they test to make sure the car knows not to hit cyclists is amazing.
Just another day at the office in a helmet. Waymo screenshot
  • How much will this process impact the overall culture there at Alphabet? Waymo is being super careful about every change it makes on this system. Each time something new goes in, it gets used to death on simulated roads. Then it gets run in Waymo’s little fake city. After lots of runs like that, they try it cautiously in the real world. Only after all that testing to they generally deploy a significant change. “Like our hardware, our self-driving software is guided by our Safety by Design philosophy. We constantly and rigorously test the individual components of the software—including perception, behavior prediction, and planner—as well as the software as a whole,” the report states. If Waymo proves to be a major source of revenue for Alphabet (and it seems like there’s a better than 50 percent chance that it will), will this go slow culture start to seep out into the rest of the company? Silicon Valley used to be about moving fast, but it could really change if folks start being super careful.
  • Why aren’t people more psyched about these things? Robot. Cars. People! Where is the buzz? This is totally the future. Why are companies trying to reassure the public when folks should be like: when can I get in?

Interestingly, Waymo is operating in communities on the outskirts of Phoenix right now, running tests with normal people doing day-to-day stuff in these cars. That’s the same place Local Motors is located. We covered that company when we wrote about how self-driving cars could benefit small towns.

The report helps make sense of why the southwest might be a good place to start for this technology. Light is good. Rain is bad. Open spaces are probably easier.

That said, the report leaves one question very clearly answered: just because some conditioning might be tough for these cars today, Waymo has no intention for it to stay that way. It has every intention of taking on every scenario roads might throw at these vehicles, one day.

7 Questions About Waymo’s Self-Driving Cars From Revelations in its Safety Report