Waymo applies for driver-free autonomous cars tests in California | Analysis
Waymo CEO John Krafcik

Waymo applies for driver-free autonomous cars tests in California | Analysis

Waymo, the driverless technology division of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has applied to test completely autonomous cars on California roads, without safety drivers onboard.

Waymo has applied to the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to test the vehicles near Waymo’s Mountain View headquarters, with a view to expanding tests across the Bay area, the US technology sector’s heartland.

Driverless testing – in every sense – became legal in the state on 2 April, and the DMV has confirmed that two companies have so far applied to test vehicles on public roads. The identity of the second company is unknown.

Under California rules, cars without drivers must be able to communicate with remote operators.

Waymo has reportedly told the DMV that its autonomous cars can handle city streets as well as highways at speeds of up to 65 mph, and can navigate day and night through light rain and fog. The Bay area of San Francisco is noted for conditions that are often damp, cold, and misty.

Testing times

The move comes less than a month after two fatal accidents in the US involving cars that were under software control with human drivers onboard.

On 19 March, an Uber Volvo under software control struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, leading to the company’s autonomous test cars being ordered off the road by state authorities. Just days later, a Tesla Model X running in Autopilot mode, hit a concrete barrier on Highway 101, killing its human driver. The accident took place near Mountain View, where Waymo plans to test its driver-free vehicles.

Tesla has objected to the word ‘autonomous’ being attached to its technology. In a written submission to Internet of Business last week, the company stressed that – despite its name – Autopilot is a driver-assistance technology that demands the driver pay attention and keep his hands on the wheel.

The lengthy submission appeared to be an implicit attempt by Tesla to suggest the driver – whose death was not referred to – was at fault for the accident.

Internet of Business replied to Tesla asking if it would now change the misleading name of the Autopilot system, as the 90,000+ drivers who use it risk believing that, as a Level 2 automation technology, the car is capable of steering and braking safely itself on the public highway, which would appear to be part of the technology’s purpose. Tesla has not responded to two separate emails from Internet of Business.

Tesla is aiming to have semi-autonomous cars on the road by the end of this year, and 35,000 of its Autopilot customers have paid for a future software upgrade. Until the fatal accident, the company had presumably hoped that easing semi-autonomous technology into production vehicles would give it a head start in the market.

Is Waymo safer?

A week after the Uber fatality, Waymo CEO John Krafcik claimed that the Arizona accident would not have happened with Waymo technology. “We have a lot of confidence that our technology would be robust and would be able to handle situations like that one,” he told US car dealers.

But is this true? The DMV provides so-called ‘disengagement reports’, which show how often an autonomous car’s backup drivers need to take control of their vehicles during live roadtests. Waymo’s report for 2017 revealed that happened, on average, once every 5,600 miles.

According to a New York Times report, Uber’s performance has been significantly worse than that: the company has been “struggling to meet” targets of drivers intervening every 13 miles, with cars “having trouble driving through construction zones and next to tall vehicles, like big rigs”. 

While Waymo’s safety record appears to be impressive, a California lawyer has presented some statistics that may give local authorities pause. Jim McPherson runs the SafeSelfDrive  consultancy. He told the San Francisco Chronicle, “If that rate still holds today, and if Waymo deploys 100 cars that drive 50 miles per day, then there will be an average of one disengagement somewhere in Mountain View every day.”

In other words, with no safety driver onboard the vehicle itself to intervene on those occasions, there may be significant risks to the public, despite Krafcik’s confidence. By making the bold claim, the CEO is now a hostage to the future safety record of Waymo’s driverless vehicles.

The jobs picture

However, Waymo has been testing 600 driver-free vehicles in Arizona since October 2017, as part of its strategy to launch an autonomous taxi service in the state later this year. To date, no serious incidents have been reported, as far as Internet of Business is aware.

Without driver overheads, Waymo could compete with traditional taxis on price, using the network effect to commoditise more and more services. However – as ever – the challenge to human society is seeing people as unnecessary cost centres in services that are provided to the public. Over time, this has a deflationary effect on human beings’ earnings.

It may also have a dramatic effect on US employment. According to US government statistics, 26 million people have drivers’ licences in California alone. In the US, over 305,000 people work as taxi, private hire, or ride-sharing drivers – one-quarter of them part time – and nearly 1.9 million work as heavy truck or tractor-trailer drivers. In total, more than 3.5 million people are thought to work as professional drivers in the US, including for bus and delivery companies, according to the Bureau for Labour Statistics.

Waymo began autonomous truck tests on the roads in Georgia last month.

Waymo opportunities

Since 2009, Waymo says that its vehicles have driven over five million miles autonomously, two million of them in California. As home to countless American technology companies, Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay area are the natural heartlands for driverless public services.

In the early stages of public road testing, California authorities insisted that manual controls were added to Waymo’s cars. Those restrictions no longer apply, so – if granted to Waymo and the other company that has applied – these new permits will reveal just how far the technology itself has travelled in less than a decade.

In the US, autonomous vehicle testing has been synonymous with the quest for greater public safety, in light of statistics that reveal that, worldwide, 1.2 million people die every year on the roads, 90 percent because of driver error. So two deaths that appear to be the fault of autonomous or so-called ‘driver assistance’ technologies are a major setback.

Autonomous technology “is going to be crucial in helping the Silicon Valley reach its safety and transportation goals,” said Los Altos Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins, quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle report.

Plus: Alibaba on the road

In related news, Alibaba is gearing up for Level-4 autonomous vehicle tests on the open road in China, according to a report in the South China Morning Post – a paper owned by Alibaba. Last month, competitor Baidu began testing driverless cars, as reported by Internet of Business.

Internet of Business says

Many will question whether it is too early to allow driver-free cars onto public roads, given that the Uber and Tesla incidents are still under investigation. However, the DMV has no time limit for considering applications, and may simply choose to wait for the official reports into those crashes.

However, current US policy is to pass vehicle-safety concerns to federal regulators, who simply pass them back to the manufacturers. In this sense, the impetus is very much with Waymo, its super-confident CEO, and the US’ aim to seize the driverless opportunity from China.

Chris Middleton
Chris Middleton is former editor of Internet of Business, and now a key contributor to the title. He specialises in robotics, AI, the IoT, blockchain, and technology strategy. He is also former editor of Computing, Computer Business Review, and Professional Outsourcing, among others, and is a contributing editor to Diginomica, Computing, and Hack & Craft News. Over the years, he has also written for Computer Weekly, The Guardian, The Times, PC World, I-CIO, V3, The Inquirer, and Blockchain News, among many others. He is an acknowledged robotics expert who has appeared on BBC TV and radio, ITN, and Talk Radio, and is probably the only tech journalist in the UK to own a number of humanoid robots, which he hires out to events, exhibitions, universities, and schools. Chris has also chaired conferences on robotics, AI, IoT investment, digital marketing, blockchain, and space technologies, and has spoken at numerous other events.