December 5, 2023

most dangerous The collision so far with a self-driving truck may have resulted in only moderate injuries, but it revealed just how unprepared local government and law enforcement are to deal with the new technology.

On May 5, a Waymo Via Class 8 truck was operating in autonomous mode with a human safety worker behind the wheel transporting a trailer heading north on Interstate 45 toward Dallas, Texas. At 3:11 p.m., just outside Ennis, a modified Peterbilt was driving in the far right lane when a group of passing trucks and trailers rolled into her lane.

A Waymo Via truck driver told police that another semi-truck continued to maneuver into the driveway, forcing the Waymo truck and trailer off the road. She was later hospitalized with injuries that Waymo described in her report to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as “moderate.” The other truck drove off without stopping.

While Waymo’s semi-autonomous truck was not at fault for hitting and running, the incident highlights loopholes in reporting mechanisms, and raises questions about the preparedness of the public and law enforcement to deal with heavy, fast-moving vehicles without a human driver.

The stakes for the autonomous trucking industry, which is still in its infancy, couldn’t be higher. One collapse, even if the company is not at fault, could tarnish the image of technology with the public.

Waymo’s Trucking Origins

Waymo began testing its driverless technology with semi-trucks in 2017, starting in California and Arizona. At that time, it was in the middle of the year Epic legal battle With Uber on technology allegedly taken from Waymo by engineer Anthony Levandowski, and later purchased by Uber as part of the self-driving truck company Otto.

Waymo’s self-driving trucks, which are part of a delivery and logistics division that the company calls Waymo Via, rely on technologies similar to their robotic vehicle: an array of sensors, including cameras, radars, lidars and powerful onboard computers. They all have qualified truck drivers – known as independent professionals – in the driver’s seat.

In 2018, Waymo began moving shipments in Georgia, and branded its own delivery business Waymo Via In 2020. Then it expanded to New Mexico and Texas, and struck deals with logistics companies such as JB Hunt, UPS and CH Robinson. Earlier this month, I committed to Long-term strategic partnership with Uber . announced Trial delivery program With the e-tailer Wayfair home goods.

This pilot is scheduled to start in July on the same stretch of I-45 where the May accident occurred.

Inside the collapse

Using reports from local police and the Department of Transportation, the Data provided by Waymo to NHTSATechCrunch attempted to reconstruct the worst self-driving truck crash on US roads to date.

According to Waymo, the Peterbilt 579 truck was not carrying any freight for any customers or partners; She was taking a “standard” test with a weighted pregnancy.

Behind the wheel was a 40-year-old independent specialist with a decade of truck driving experience. There was also a software player on board. Like many workers at Waymo cars, both have already worked before TransdevA multinational moving and transportation company.

Although the ultimate goal of automated trucks is to eliminate or at least significantly reduce staffing costs, today’s self-driving truck startups work with a safety driver and engineer or technician on board.

Waymo reported that her truck was traveling in self-driving mode at 62 mph, just below the speed limit, when the other truck got into its lane and forced it off the road.

The Waymo Via self-driving truck was hit by another semi-truck in May 2022. Image credits: Ennis Police Department

Waymo told TechCrunch that the safety operator did not control the truck from its autonomous system.

“Technology was not a factor, as this collision was caused by a human driver of another vehicle when they crossed the lane line and crashed into the cabin of Waymo’s car and continued to drive,” company spokeswoman Catherine Barna wrote in an email.

Ennis PD photos, obtained under public records laws, show a Waymo truck and trailer on the side of the highway. It seems that they were prevented from slipping on a parallel road in the suburbs due to a crash barrier. A police officer in Ennis noticed that the truck itself had only minor damage: one of the photos shows damage to the truck’s laser range sensor.


An image of the Waymo Via LiDAR sensor damaged in a crash in Texas. Image credits: Ennis Police Department

However, the driver was taken to a nearby hospital with moderate and unspecified injuries. The treating officer classified the incident as a hit and run. Waymo told TechCrunch he understands the driver is doing fine after his injury. The driver did not respond to a request from TechCrunch for comment.

Because the system was active for at least some of the 30 seconds prior to the collision, Waymo was required to report this to the NHTSA, to comply with agency requirements. General Standing Order on Trouble Reporting for motorized vehicles.

Gaps in the system

There are no checkboxes in the Texas Department of Transportation’s crash report to record whether the vehicles in question were fully or partially automated, and this information was not recorded in the narrative section of the Waymo crash report.

Ennis investigator Paul Aspe, who later investigated the accident, told TechCrunch he did not know the truck was operating autonomously at the time of the collision.

At the hospital, the Waymo driver told police that the vehicle that hit the jogger was owned by Helwig Trucking, a local tanker with about 15 trucks. (Waymo also confirmed that the truck’s cameras captured enough detail to identify the other vehicle.) Helwig did not respond to a request for comment.

The driver left her phone number with the police, got out of the hospital, and the Waymo truck was towed away. Detective Aspe is assigned to the case, and he quickly establishes that the accident was Helwig’s driver’s fault. Contact the company to get their side of the story and their insurance details. But when it came to Waymo, Asby met a wall of silence.

“I was going to talk to the driver because she was taken to the hospital but I tried to call her mobile and he said it was not a valid number,” he said. “Same for the passenger who was there with her.”

Subsequent calls to Waymo itself went unanswered. “They never answered my calls. I put the case on hold, but the insurance info is there if they want to.” “Maybe they are too wealthy and don’t care about that.”

Waymo told TechCrunch that he was not aware of any attempt by Ennis PD to contact him for information, and that he had no need to contact the department itself.

How are you

The Ennis accident wasn’t the only one involving the Waymo truck. In February, a southbound 579 Waymo Peterbilt on Interstate 10 near Sacaton, Arizona, collided with a box truck traveling in the adjacent lane, which also collided with a bus. The Waymo was traveling at 50 mph in the 75 mph limit area. TechCrunch was not immediately able to obtain a police report detailing the incident. There were no reports of injuries.

If Waymo is not required to report incidents to NHTSA, there is a chance that they will never be disclosed. Official crash reports collected by Texas, which has welcomed many self-driving truck operations on its highways, appear insufficient to fully record accidents involving driverless vehicles. Historically, local law enforcement has been poorly equipped to deal with driving systems rather than driving humans.

Parna says Waymo is trying to fill those gaps. “Waymo has built the Waymo Driver to interact with first responders; and has worked closely with public safety officials to ensure the safe introduction of our technology into every market we operate in.” “Our team with decades of law enforcement experience has provided training to hundreds of officers and firefighters in California, Arizona and Texas detailing best practices for safe interaction with Waymo vehicles.”

“We have a huge amount of work to do to integrate these things into society,” he said. Steve Vesselya sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies trucking and works as a consultant for Aurora self-driving truck efforts. “We need to talk a lot about what it means for supply chains, workers and highways. There are a lot of people who are going to do stupid and aggressive things around them because they don’t like self-driving vehicles.”

Waymo told the US Department of Transportation that it has 47 trucks that have driven more than 1.6 million miles. It will not disclose to TechCrunch the number of miles traveled under a certain level of automated control.

Viscelli says automated trucking companies have “ditched the essential elements of driving.” “This is what happens to a family on vacation with the tire off, or when there is construction changing the road, or debris on the highway. When you are confident about those issues, that will determine when they are on the road. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see driverless trucks on public tracks. next”.

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