An autonomous Waymo car hit a cyclist in San Francisco yesterday – but luckily the cyclist had only minor injuries. Still, it’s bad news for urban cyclists, and for Waymo, Alphabet’s autonomous vehicle division, which is already having a tough time shaking off all the bad buzz from the Cruise disaster.
After the accident, Waymo, in counter-Cruise fashion, reported that the company called the police to the scene and subsequently contacted “relevant” authorities about what happened, according to Reuters. I’m guessing crucial moments of video footage won’t go missing this time.
According to the report, the Waymo vehicle was at a full stop at the four-way intersection of 17th and Mississippi in Potrero Hill, with a large truck turning into the intersection. Problem was, the Waymo car went ahead when it perceived it was its turn to enter the intersection, but it didn’t see a cyclist who was behind the truck and crossing into the Waymo car’s path.
After spotting the cyclist, the vehicle braked heavily, but it wasn’t enough to avoid hitting the cyclist, the company said. According to Reuters, a San Francisco Fire Department spokesperson said that a 911 call was made, but that the cyclist was not taken to the hospital and left the scene on their own.
This all falls as Waymo is looking to expand its full driverless robotaxi service in Los Angeles, where it is currently testing rides. The company already has a large fleet of robotaxis in San Francisco, which can be ordered and paid for via its app, and hopes to procure a license in Los Angeles to operate and expand its service.
California, too, has made a prime location for the human-less fleet in that robotaxis are immune from receiving moving violations. California law enforcement can only write traffic violations to humans, not robots, meaning that autonomous vehicles operating in a driverless mode are only susceptible to parking tickets – although some activists and residents are looking to change that in light of the accident involving a pedestrian getting dragged down a street by a Cruise robotaxi that failed to stop.
Waymo had said that it has a permit to operate 250 robotaxis in San Francisco, and that it deploys about 100 of them at any one time. The company also said that this month it would start testing its fully autonomous passenger cars without a human driver on freeways in Phoenix. It also is looking to expand to Austin.
We don’t have particulars yet about why the vehicle didn’t register the cyclist, who presumably was legally traversing the intersection and minding their business before getting creepily rammed by a driverless car. But Google Earth shows that the intersection is relatively flat and wide with a bike lane – and the accident happened in broad daylight, at around 3 p.m. Still, we need more details about who was turning where and how – in other words, we need that footage.
No doubt human drivers are terrible and scary. But this is still bad news for Waymo, which has been working to separate itself from any backdraft from the Cruise disaster (which was, of course, totally unrelated to Waymo). Although all things considered, Waymo has done pretty well for itself so far, and insists that its robotaxis are safer than human drivers – it’s potentially going to have a tougher time making that argument now, even if the accident was minor. And beside, its data is very fresh. Waymo has tallied just over 7 million driverless miles, and Cruise having had logged 5 million miles before stopping operations. Humans, on average, cause one death about every 100 million miles driven, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety.
Plus, while Waymo wants to officially set up its service in Los Angeles, it is getting plenty of pushback. The Teamsters and three other labor organizations are calling for stricter regulations of driverless cars, which they say threaten jobs of drivers. Plus a new bill is in the California Legislature that would grant cities and counties the authority to regulate or ban altogether companies like Waymo. So it’s looking like an uphill battle for Waymo these days.
Photo credit: Waymo
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