A perplexed Waymo self-driving car was captured on video earlier this month after becoming stranded on an Arizona road while carrying a passenger and then unexpectedly driving away as a worker from the company’s roadside assistance arrived to assist.
However, the Waymo vehicle quickly became stuck further down the road, which was lined with construction cones. The Waymo driver caught up with the vehicle, took control, and drove the paying passenger to his destination. In Chandler, Arizona, Waymo provides a limited ride-hailing service.
The video footage of the 41-minute trip posted on YouTube by the Waymo passenger, according to autonomous vehicle experts, shows a series of gaffes by the Waymo self-driving technology.
“The first one was understandable. The second was strange. The third one was jaw-dropping and the fourth one I threw up my hands,” Noah Goodall, a University of Virginia scientist who researches vehicle communication and automation, told reporters.
First, rather than turning onto a street lined with cones, the Waymo vehicle paused at a stop sign. Waymo told CNN Business that the guidance provided by one of its employees to revise the car’s trajectory was “inadequate,” but declined to elaborate. Waymo employs remote workers who can provide information and directions to self-driving cars. They are unable to operate the vehicles manually.
The car then completed the turn, but soon came to a halt in the road, blocking part of a traffic lane. Construction sites are known to be difficult for fully autonomous vehicles to navigate because they rely on detailed maps of their surroundings to do so.
When the car’s environment changes, such as when there are traffic cones or lane closures, it may struggle to perform optimally.
It backed up slightly after a four-minute stop, further blocking a traffic lane. To avoid the Waymo vehicle, human drivers had to cross a double yellow line. Some people honked.
The Waymo vehicle remained stopped after a construction crew removed a cone in its path.
A few minutes later, the Waymo car pulled away, surprising a Waymo employee who was explaining via the car’s audio system to the van’s passenger, Joel Johnson, that roadside assistance was on its way. Johnson was encouraged to remain seated and wear his seat belt.
“Are we moving?” the worker asked in a confused tone.
The Waymo van came to a halt again further down the road, surrounded by more cones. A Waymo roadside assistance vehicle then arrived.
The Waymo worker on the car’s audio system informed Johnson that the human driver would take over.
“You better hurry up, it’s going to escape,” Johnson warned the Waymo worker. The Waymo car then drove away again as the human driver approached, but only for a short distance.
“I don’t even know what’s going on anymore,” Johnson said in the video.
Johnson told CNN Business that the mishaps caused him to be about 20 minutes late for his destination, and that he received a Waymo refund.
“If you need to really be on time you don’t generally take Waymo yet,” Johnson told CNN Business in an interview.
Despite this, Johnson, who has taken 146 trips in Waymo vehicles, believes the public should not be concerned about the safety of Waymo’s self-driving cars and continues to ride in them.
“I’ve seen so much impressive technology,” Johnson said of Waymo. “It seems disingenuous to write them off because of one incident.”
In a statement, Waymo said the situation was “not ideal,” and the self-driving car had received incorrect guidance, making it difficult for the autonomous vehicle to resume its intended route.
Bryant Walker Smith, an autonomous vehicle researcher at the University of South Carolina, was surprised that no command was issued to halt the Waymo vehicle in place so that roadside assistance could take over.
“There wasn’t great coordination among the in-vehicle system, this remote monitoring capacity of the operator on the line and the on-ground assistance,” Smith said.