Earlier today, Waymo, the Alphabet/Google-owned company developing autonomous ride-sharing vehicles, issued a statement saying they would be suspending all operations, including their “fully driverless operations.” Unlike most activities during the pandemic, I think perhaps this actually could be a good time for Waymo to be testing AVs. Let’s think about this.
Oh, but first, here’s Waymo’s statement in full:
“Update on COVID-19: All Waymo services suspended
As we continue to closely monitor the evolving COVID-19 situation, we’re suspending all of our Waymo One rider services in Arizona until April 7th, including our service with trained drivers and our fully driverless operations within the early rider program. All driving operations in other locations also remain suspended for now, along with local delivery and truck testing.
We’ll update our riders and partners when service is up and running again. Until then, our Rider Support team is available to answer any questions.
Stay healthy, and thanks from all of us at Waymo.”
Okay, I absolutely get suspending actual services for riders because, let’s be honest, ride share cars are likely to be excellent delivery vehicles for viruses, effectively giving the little prickly Covid-19 bastards free lifts all over the place.
But autonomous vehicles could actually be useful, once they’re ready, in pandemic situations like these. Not so much for ferrying people around, which won’t really help, as it’s better still to keep people in their homes, but as unmanned delivery robots.
Now, the truth is we’re not really there yet, not for a good while at least, but we’re still in a situation where so many cities have road networks with a fraction of their usual traffic, which could be a boon for AV testing.
Now, there’s some big pluses and minuses here; first, from a safety angle, it’s vastly better to be testing still prototype AVs in contexts where there’s simply fewer people on the road, which means fewer chances to actually hurt anyone.
If there’s less overall traffic, more extensive and bold AV testing could happen, with less risk to all the people not involved, and less of a chance to inconvenience people, as well.
The flip side of this is that in unusually low-traffic situations, you’re not really subjecting the vehicles’s sensors or software to true real-world conditions, so you’re not going to get completely realistic results.
This is an issue, but I don’t think a deal-breaker; there’s still plenty of basic behaviors and systems and hardware that could benefit from testing and refinement even in unusually low-traffic contexts. Also, if an AV is paired with a group of human-driven test vehicles, companies and researchers could take their AV prototypes to empty streets and neighborhoods and set up specific, controllable traffic scenarios with their own cars, which could allow for some very detailed and controlled experimentation in areas of the city normally not available for this sort of thing.
It sucks that this is all happening. We’re all sick of being stuck home and all the restaurants and fun places to go closed down. But, it has to happen, and since that’s the case, we may as well see what else we can turn into a positive from all this, and perhaps the opportunity for more real-world AV testing without the usual drawbacks could be one of them.
Plus, it could also mean at least some more people still able to keep their jobs and salaries during this time, which can’t hurt as well, all without any need to endanger anyone by placing them in close contact with many other people. AV testing monitors could be in cars, separate from other people, sending back data electronically, keeping the cars at their homes unless they had to be returned to a facility for maintenance or updates, at which point the cars could be sterilized.
I think Waymo is doing the right thing suspending their ride sharing services, but perhaps they—or, really, any company developing AVs—could be finding ways to test their AVs more during this unexpected period of record low traffic and surprisingly empty streets.
I mean, hopefully, they won’t have an opportunity like this again. May as well take advantage of it, yeah?
(If you’re interested in AVs, and you’re stuck at home anyway, why not read a book about them?)