According to a recent white paper published by the parent company of Google, Alphabet, the autonomous-car artificial intelligence from its firm Waymo mostly avoided or mitigated crashes in a set of virtually recreated fatal accidents.
The paper was based on 72 fatal crashes that occurred between 2008 and 2017 in Arizona, where Waymo currently operates a small-scale autonomous ride-hail service based on its “Driver” sensors and software. That included 20 incidents involving a pedestrian or cyclist.
“We believe we have an opportunity to improve road safety by replacing the human driver with the Waymo Driver. This study helps validate that belief,” Trent Victor, Waymo’s director of safety research and best practices, said in a blog post.
For public benefit
The Driver system failed to avoid or mitigate simulated accidents only when the autonomous car was struck from behind, according to the study. While the paper isn’t an independent assessment, this is the first time an autonomous startup has shared data showing how its system might perform in real-world fatal crashes, Waymo said in a blog post.
Waymo says it published the study for the benefit of the public, rather than regulators specifically. However, the company said in October it wanted to revive discussions around shared industry safety standards and legislative support for self-driving technology.
The Google parent’s self-driving unit is one of a number of well-funded companies racing to commercialize autonomous vehicle technology and pitching safety as a key benefit. General Motors’ Cruise and Amazons Zoox are also working on robotaxi fleets using their own autonomous cars and conducting hundreds of thousands of miles of testing on public roads each year. But Waymo is seen as a front-runner, in part because of the small pilot services it already operates in Arizona.
Waymo accepted in the white paper that using human-induced collisions isn’t inherently proof that autonomous vehicles are ready to handle all of the things that could possibly cause an accident. In particular, the paper cited the potential for human drivers to misinterpret the actions of an autonomous car or react differently in a potential crash situation with an autonomous vehicle than in one with a human-driven car.
Waymo began as the Google Self-Driving Car Project in 2009. The Waymo Driver’s sensors and software constantly scan for objects around the vehicle like pedestrians, cyclists, vehicles, road work, obstructions and continuously read traffic controls, from traffic light color and railroad crossing gates to temporary stop signs. The Waymo Driver can see up to three football fields away in every direction.