The Downside to Autopilots
Google and Waymo want their fleet of autonomous cars to act without human input, forgoing the autopilot feature found in many other cars from companies like Tesla. On Waymo’s FAQ page, the company notes how a majority of traffic accidents are caused by human error — something that can be addressed by making fully self-driving cars.
If you’ve ever seen one of Waymo’s prototype cars, you may have noticed it doesn’t have a steering wheel — that’s by design, as it plays into the company’s desire for cars that don’t need people operating the wheel. This wasn’t a sudden change that happened recently, either. Google and Waymo decided to shift away from autopilot features in 2013, after observing what people did when they no longer had to keep their eyes on the road.
As reported by Reuters, Waymo CEO John Krafcik revealed during a Waymo event on Monday that the initial 2013 tests showed passengers taking naps, applying makeup, and fiddling with their phones while the car approached speeds of 56 mph.
“What we found was pretty scary,” said Krafcik. “It’s hard to take over because they have lost contextual awareness.”
From Semi-Autonomous to Fully Self-Driving
Autopilot features typically require the person behind the wheel to take over in tougher situations for which the self-driving tech isn’t prepared. Other systems may also require the person to touch the steering wheel after a certain amount of time to inform the vehicle they’re still conscious or paying attention.
Waymo planned to do the same with their fleet of vehicles, but shifted focus away from such features, noting how the presence of autopilot could allow people to ignore the road and be unprepared to take the wheel if the situation called for it. This included a system in which the driver would be prompted to take over after an alarm went off, as well as allowing the driver to pass control to the car and vice-versa.
Now, Waymo’s self-driving cars feature two buttons for driver control: one for starting a ride, and another for pulling the car over at the next possible opportunity. As development progresses, Krafcik envisions a scenario in which an empty car comes to pick you up.
“In level four mode, you can imagine a completely empty car coming to where you are, you open the door, hop in the back seat, and it can take you — relaxed and happy, perhaps it has Wi-Fi — wherever it is you want to go,” The Verge reports Krafcik saying. “That’s what we’re striving to achieve every day.”
Waymo announced last week that it would begin testing its self-driving cars in Michigan, and it’s expected to launch its own ride-sharing service within the next few months. The company is also exploring the possibility of incorporating their tech with trucks and truck driving — another occupation plagued by truck related accidents.