Google's Self-Driving Cars Have Trouble With Basic Driving Tasks: Report

One of Waymo’s Chrysler Pacificas in the Phoenix area.
Photo: Waymo

If the autonomous revolution ever arrives, it’s almost certain that self-driving cars will drive with an over-abundance of caution, which makes sense, but will surely irritate regular drivers on the road in the interim. Case in point: a new story from tech new outlet The Information dug into the ongoing Arizona pilot program launched by Waymo, Google’s self-driving car unit, and found the company’s autonomous Chrysler Pacificas are kind of terrible at basic driving techniques and navigating road features.

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The Information’s story cites five unnamed sources with direct knowledge of issues Waymo has encountered during the pilot program, and found that the company’s program continues to encounter tech snafus in the development stage.

For example:

The Waymo vans have trouble with many unprotected left turns and with merging into heavy traffic in the Phoenix area, especially on highways. Sometimes, the vans don’t understand basic road features, such as metered red and green lights that regulate the pace of cars merging onto freeways.

(Update: Waymo maintains that unprotected lefts are advanced and inherently dangerous maneuvers, which is why UPS truck drivers aren’t advised to do them. We maintain they’re a part of regular driving, and there’s a big difference in size, speed and agility between a UPS truck and a Chrysler minivan.)

The merge troubles were captured on a video earlier this year, which showed one of the Chrysler Pacificas missing a number of opportunities to make its way into the highway.

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But the outlet also spoke with numerous residents in the area who, perhaps surprisingly, found the minivans to be rather annoying. Take the lead anecdote in the piece:

Two weeks ago, Lisa Hargis, an administrative assistant who works at an office a stone’s throw from Waymo’s vehicle depot, said she nearly hit a Waymo Chrysler Pacifica minivan because it stopped abruptly while making a right turn at the intersection.

“Go!” she shouted angrily, she said, after getting stuck in the intersection midway through her left turn. Cars that had been driving behind the Waymo van also stopped. “I was going to murder someone,” she said.

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Reached for comment, a Waymo spokesperson told Jalopnik: “As the only company with a fleet of fully self-driving cars on public roads, our vehicles are continually learning and we’ve developed robust testing processes that will allow us to safely expand our vehicle’s driverless capabilities over time. Safety will remain our highest priority as we deploy our technology.”

A point often contemplated about self-driving cars is that, in a theoretical future where they’re everywhere on public street, humans will simply bully autonomous vehicles around; the vehicles will almost certainly be programmed to observe the rules of the road to an extreme.

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The Information found that Waymo’s vans stop for “at least three seconds” at a stop sign, while also flipping on its turn signal “well before it makes a lane change.”

How often do you stop for three seconds at a stop sign? I’m imagining every time I boiled over with road rage in a neighborhood, as someone puttered along at 10 mph, dialing the car back to zero, and coming to a complete stop, at every stop sign. It’s exhausting to even think about getting ushered to a grocery store in a car designed like this, although a number of Waymo test riders have reportedly praised the rides.

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Again, this does make sense! Without a driver in the car, of course, the vehicle should obey traffic laws. But it underscores just how awkward the introduction of autonomous cars may be for us puny humans along the way.

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About the author

Ryan Felton

Senior Reporter, Jalopnik/Special Projects Desk

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