Technology

An inside look at a wayward Waymo self-driving car

The ride continued. As the car traveled along North Dobson, the remote operator queried Johnson. “Are you moving?” she asked, just before the robotaxi came to yet another stop that partially blocked traffic.

At last, Waymo’s roadside assistance crew arrived. But as a crew member approached, the minivan played a cat-and-mouse game and drove away. Another minute and a half passed, and the remote operator sounded incredulous: “The car took off again?”

Finally, after the car’s next unscheduled pit stop, a member of the roadside assistance team managed to open the front door and climb behind the wheel. He asked Johnson whether he was OK after the 16-minute ordeal.

“I live for moments like these,” Johnson replied.

At first, he was exhilarated. Like an art collector coming across a rare painting, Johnson knew the video would be the undoubted standout of his collection, which was already a valuable repository of information. In retrospect, Johnson wonders whether he should have been more worried for his safety. Or whether he should have tried to hop in the driver’s seat and steer the vehicle out of harm’s way.

“I should have been a little more freaked out, but I was mostly thinking of how good the video was going to be,” he said. Indeed, the video had nearly a quarter-million views on YouTube by late last week. “I should have been concerned about the whiplash potential.”

He remains enthusiastic about participating in Waymo One.

Rajkumar expressed admiration for the calm Johnson displayed. He wonders whether Johnson should have exited the vehicle. Earlier in the ride, the remote operator had advised Johnson to remain in his seat with his seat belt fastened. But are there situations where a rider should seek an exit? Or commandeer control and pull an erratic car to a safe stop on the side of the road rather than creating a traffic hazard? There are no surefire answers.
In its statement, Waymo said, “While the situation was not ideal, the Waymo Driver operated the vehicle safely until the Roadside Assistance arrived.”

Exactly what safety risk the incident posed to Johnson or other motorists as the minivan blocked traffic is difficult to quantify. What is reassuring in some sense is that a more dire scenario was avoided.

“In the best of all worlds, it should have pulled over,” Rajkumar said. “In the worst, something bad would have happened. It did not do the best. It did not do the worst. I give them credit for that.”

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