Waymo had to save an autonomous van that was confused by safety cones

It is difficult to program a computer to understand and navigate the roads designed for human drivers. Just ask Elon Musk. However, we rarely get the chance to see how much can go wrong when an autonomous vehicle encounters a situation it doesn’t know how to approach. A 35-minute video by Joel Johnson (via Autoblog), a YouTuber who shares clips from his travels with Waymo One in Arizona, offers a rare glimpse into a perfect storm of errors.

About 12 minutes after the video starts, Johnson’s car wants to turn right onto a multi-lane street. Unfortunately for Waymo Driver, the far right lane was closed with construction cones marking the obstacle. After the car stalls, unsure of what to do next, a Waymo representative contacts Johnson to tell him roadside assistance is on its way. Before help arrives, the car suddenly moves to complete the turn, but stops between the lanes. This then worsens the situation by stepping back a few meters. “Now he’s blocking the whole way instead of half,” Johnson says dryly of the development.

At this point in the video, a construction worker in a flatbed truck comes to retrieve the cones that had confused Waymo Driver. Just as support arrives, the car pulls away from the situation only to encounter more cones and send another cry for help. Before a human driver can finally board the car and drive Johnson to his destination, Waymo Driver tries to escape again.

Waymo says employees can’t control a car remotely. Instead, they can only offer Waymo Driver’s suggestions on how to navigate a sticky situation. After encountering an “unusual situation” (the construction cones) and enlisting the help of a remote specialist, the company said, “the fleet response team provided the wrong advice.” This is what led the situation to worsen as it did.

“While the situation was not ideal, the Waymo driver drove the vehicle safely until roadside assistance arrived,” the company said in a statement to Johnson. “Throughout the Waymo team have been in contact with the Pilot, who provided thoughtful and helpful feedback that allows us to continue to learn and improve the Waymo Pilot.” If there’s a silver lining to the episode, it’s that Johnson pulled off a free spin (and an entertaining video) from it. Waymo, meanwhile, says he has already researched what happened to improve “our business process”.

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