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Shocking Week for Robotaxi Firm Waymo

Autonomous private hire service operator Waymo enjoyed a torrid time last week. One of its vehicles hit a cyclist and another was set upon by an angry mob.

Robotaxi Road Traffic Accident Being Investigated

Waymo operate a large fleet of robotaxis in San Francisco. Members of the public can order and paid for the service via an app. One of the firm’s vehicles collided with a cyclist in San Francisco on February 6th. The accident occurred at the intersection of 17th and Mississippi in Potrero Hill. Fortunately the cyclist appears to have sustained at most only slight injuries. Post the accident, Waymo, revealed that police attended to the scene. The “relevant” authorities were contacted to inform them of the circumstances.

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Accounts of the incident on the Reuters news platform state that, the Waymo car was stationary whilst waiting at the four-way junction. As the Waymo robotaxi turned it had, either failed or been unable to spot, a cyclist that was moving behind a large truck. The cyclist and the Waymo car crossed paths and collided.

At the point of identifying the cyclist the vehicle performed an emergency braking manoeuvre. However there was insufficient reaction time to prevent the prang. A San Francisco Fire Department spokesperson that the cyclist was not taken for treatment and departed the scene without assistance. The mishap is said to have happened in daylight at approximately 3 p.m. When video is released publically it will no doubt be scrutinised closely to identify the party who was at fault.

Waymo, Alphabet’s autonomous vehicle division, is seeking to launch its robotaxi service in additional territories. It has a permit to run 250 robotaxis in San Francisco. Although it only operates around a hundred simultaneously. It is currently undertaking test rides in Los Angeles. Autonomous vehicles are exempt from receiving law enforcement orders for violations in California. They can only be issued to humans. Hence the state is a key growth area for these tech companies. Phoenix and Austin are other areas in its development pipeline. It will be hoping that news of this failure will not to prevent or delay its latest license application.

Safety Concerns and Regulatory Scrutiny in the Driverless Vehicle Industry

In their last reports Waymo’s driverless taxi had accrued a little over 7 million miles. According to National Highway Traffic Safety statistics, on average a human operator is responsible for a death around every 100 million miles behind a wheel. So there is far more testing required to establish the safety merits of the service.

The company does at least have appeared to have dealt with the fallout of this accident in a transparent and professional fashion. In California recent behaviour by rival robotaxi company Cruise is coming under increasing scrutiny. In an accident with a pedestrian last October, a Cruise vehicle dragged a pedestrian along a street. The company has been in crisis mode ever since. News reports have alleged flaws in both the company’s safety practices and its software.

The incident involved a pedestrian being struck by a human driver. The pedestrian landed in the next lane in which a Cruise robotaxi was travelling. The robotaxi recognised the need to brake and came to a stop. Although the car’s operating system was unaware that the pedestrian was underneath the vehicle. The robotaxi then began a manoeuvre to pull over to the side of the road. The pedestrian was consequently dragged around 20 feet. Cruise which is General Motors self-driving car subsidiary, subsequently issued a recall for 950 vehicles equipped with its autonomous vehicle software following the crash. An independent investigation has been commission to look into Cruise’s actions following the incident. It will examine the company’s dealing with law enforcement, regulators and the press.

Labour organisations in the region are lobbying for tighter regulation of driverless vehicles. They highlight the threat to employment a major concern in addition to safety issues. A new bill is in the California Legislature that would empower the banning of the operating companies altogether.

From Bad to Worse for Waymo

During Chinese New Year celebrations in Chinatown an angry mob in San Francisco vandalised and set fire to one of Waymo’s robotaxis. The incident is said to be unconnected to the incident involving a cyclist. The robotaxi is said to have been confused by fireworks that had been launched in the street. This meant it remained static in the road. An infuriated mob of party goers bystanders vented their anger on the defenceless vehicle. Their actions were caught on film by one bystander and posted to X (formerly Twitter).

What Next For Robotaxis

Human operators are clearly not impervious to committing driver error. However any failure of the autonomous software, no matter how seemingly consequence free, is likely to slow its growth aspirations as the incidents are analysed in necessary detail. Waymo will of course continue to argue that robotaxis are far safer than human drivers. Until the data says otherwise a large proportion of the public remain in need of convincing. In fact, even then the data says otherwise they may still need convincing.

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