Waymo’s Self-Driving Car Crashed Because its Human Driver Fell Asleep at the Wheel

John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo, introduces a Chrysler Pacifica hybrid outfitted with Waymo's own suite of sensors and radar, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo, introduces a Chrysler Pacifica hybrid outfitted with Waymo's own suite of sensors and radar, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Paul Sancya/AP File Photo

The dozing driver didn’t respond to any of the vehicle’s warnings.

In June, one of Waymo’s self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans crashed on the freeway outside of the company’s office in Mountain View, California, after its lone safety driver fell asleep at the wheel.

Tech news site The Information, which first reported the crash, said the human driver manning the vehicle “appeared to doze off” after about an hour on the road, according to two people familiar with the matter. The safety driver unwittingly turned off the car’s self-driving software by touching the gas pedal. He failed to assume control of the steering wheel, and the Pacifica crashed into the highway median.

The dozing driver didn’t respond to any of the vehicle’s warnings, including a bell signaling the car was in manual mode and another audio alert, the Information reported. He regained alertness once the car crashed, then turned around and headed back to the Mountain View office. He no longer works for Waymo.

Waymo got lucky with the accident. The safety driver wasn’t hurt and no other vehicles were involved. Waymo reported the vehicle sustained “moderate damage to its tire and bumper.” The company told The Information in a statement that it is “constantly improving our best practices, including those for driver attentiveness, because the safe and responsible testing of our technology is integral to everything we do.”

Improvements in this case meant altering night-shift protocol to have two safety drivers instead of one, to guard against someone nodding off at the wheel. At a company meeting to discuss the incident, one attendee reportedly asked whether safety drivers were on the road too long, and was told that drivers can take a break whenever they need to.

Waymo is pursuing fully self-driving software that wouldn’t require any intervention from humans, in contrast to automakers like Tesla and General Motors, which have started with selectively automated features to assist human drivers. As Waymo has gotten closer to true autonomy, it has also tried to reduce its reliance on human safety drivers by, for example, cutting the number of safety drivers in a test vehicle to one from two. Waymo plans to launch a commercial ride-hail service with driverless cars in the Phoenix area this year.

After a self-driving Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona in March, one point of focus was Uber’s safety-driver policies. Jalopnik pointed out that “almost everyone”—Toyota, Nissan, Ford’s Argo AI—uses two people to test self-driving cars. In the Uber Volvo that crashed, on the other hand, Rafaela Vasquez was a lone safety driver, at night. She was later found by police to be streaming The Voice on her phone at the time of impact.

One thing everyone working on driverless cars agrees on is that humans are bad drivers. People from Waymo CEO John Krafcik to disgraced former Uber engineer Anthony Levandowski—try finding a more diametrically opposed pair—like to talk about how driverless cars will save lives by eliminating thousands of preventable highway fatalities a year.

It is baffling, then, that these companies trust the very humans they seek to unseat to watch over their adolescent technology, alone and for hours on end. An autonomous safety driver once described to me working 10- to 11-hour shifts unaccompanied, including nights that began in the early evening and ended well past midnight. Drivers could take breaks whenever they wanted, this person said, but it was still a challenge to stay focused for that long without anyone to talk to, or much to do beyond watching the road.

A few months after the Tempe accident, Uber laid off most of its self-driving car operators in Pittsburgh and San Francisco. Uber said it would replace these people with “mission specialists” trained to monitor its cars on roads and on specialized test tracks. These mission specialists are supposed to be more involved in the actual development of the cars, tasked with tracking, documenting, and triaging any issues that might crop up. Per a current job listing, they should have “the ability to operate independently with little or no supervision.”

There is a great essay by reporter Tim Harford about how our quest to automate all things may be setting us up for disaster. The more we let computers fly planes, drive cars, operate machinery, and so on, the less time the people we’ve put in place for backup—pilots, safety drivers, and other operators—are able to practice their skills, and the greater the odds they’ll be unprepared in a true emergency. This problem is known as the paradox of automation, and it applies to benign problems as well, like how we struggle to remember phone numbers that are stored in our mobile devices, or to do mental math that we can punch into a calculator. Like any skill, these need to be practiced to be maintained, and become rusty with disuse. Instead of designing technology for humans to babysit, Harford wonders, why aren’t we making technology that babysits humans?

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.