Tag Archives: Ideas

Waymo’s self-driving fleet: a modest but manifestly sensible proposal

Waymo’s CEO said back in July that Waymo’s software had driven five billion miles on simulated roads and traffic. Its real cars had driven eight million miles on real roads, for real. There’s no question that Waymo is way ahead of everyone else in the development of self-driving cars.

And yet if the goal is to make an autonomous driving system that can transport people from doorstep to doorstep via roads that are also open to human drivers and pedestrian, Waymo isn’t close. Five billion miles in simulation is just table stakes. Engineers can only simulate what they can predict. Human behavior is utterly unpredictable.

I imagine that you’re expecting me to make a joke about irrational Boston drivers after that line. Oh, sweetie. Honey. No. It’s true that our moves are mostly dictated by Brownian motion but that’s not the real problem. To truly gape into the maw of madness, you need to look at our network of roads. Most of them were initially laid out by either cows looking for grazing land or 17th and 18th-century Puritans walking to church. Would you trust either species to design a backyard patio? I don’t think so. We think about this often, especially when we’re trying to find a way out of an entire neighborhood whose streets are all one-way and end with “Right Turns Only” signs.

But that’s not Waymo’s problem. Not yet. One of the big challenges they’re confronting during their wide test program in Arizona is how the presence of marked autonomous vehicles changes the behavior of other cars on the road.

The Arizona Republic has been reporting on open hostility and road rage against Waymo cars:

A Waymo self-driving van cruised through a Chandler neighborhood Aug. 1 when test driver Michael Palos saw something startling as he sat behind the wheel — a bearded man in shorts aiming a handgun at him as he passed the man’s driveway.
The incident is one of at least 21 interactions documented by Chandler police during the past two years where people have harassed the autonomous vehicles and their human test drivers.
People have thrown rocks at Waymos. The tire on one was slashed while it was stopped in traffic. The vehicles have been yelled at, chased and one Jeep was responsible for forcing the vans off roads six times.

And from The New York Times:

“There are other places they can test,” said Erik O’Polka, 37, who was issued a warning by the police in November after multiple reports that his Jeep Wrangler had tried to run Waymo vans off the road — in one case, driving head-on toward one of the self-driving vehicles until it was forced to come to an abrupt stop.
His wife, Elizabeth, 35, admitted in an interview that her husband “finds it entertaining to brake hard” in front of the self-driving vans, and that she herself “may have forced them to pull over” so she could yell at them to get out of their neighborhood. The trouble started, the couple said, when their 10-year-old son was nearly hit by one of the vehicles while he was playing in a nearby cul-de-sac.
“They said they need real-world examples, but I don’t want to be their real-world mistake,” said Mr. O’Polka, who runs his own company providing information technology to small businesses.

There can be no rational reason to attack any vehicle that’s carrying people (remember that these Waymo vans are often carrying passengers and there’s always a safety driver at the wheel). But there are legit safety concerns about sharing the road with these experimental vehicles. A pedestrian was killed by an Uber autonomous test vehicle in March. Investigators eventually learned that the accident occurred because the human being who was placed behind the wheel to oversee the safety of the vehicle was instead overseeing an episode of “The Voice” on her personal phone instead.

[Edited: a reader points out the the road was unlit and that the pedestrian was jaywalking; after reviewing the car’s footage, the chief of police said that the accident was “unavoidable.” Was it? We’ll never know. But we do know that Uber’s software was downright crude compared to Waymo’s: it couldn’t even go a dozen miles without requiring human intervention of some kind. As of a March article in The New York Times, Waymo’s software could go 5600 miles before asking for help. Uber’s system took too long to see the victim, took too long to decide what to do, and then when it finally alerted the human driver, that driver wasn’t paying attention. The accident might have been unavoidable but it sure sounds like it needn’t have been fatal and that Uber’s platform was nowhere near ready for this type of testing.]

But that doesn’t dismiss concerns about safety. A car that can be equipped with enough sensors to navigate a road and react to what’s going on can also be equipped with sensors that detect that a safety driver isn’t actually watching the road. So why was this kind of accident even possible?

The software can also be very, very annoying for other cars. Experimental self-driving cars all drive like student drivers who got their learners’ permits a week ago and are driving the family’s “good” car. We enter a complicated intersection and make the right move instinctively. Self-driving cars stop and think and wait for a situation to become more clear. They make, like, 18-point turns sometimes.

But hey, these are all “experimental technology” problems. Put enough miles on the odometer and they’ll all get solved.

I’m more interested in the dangers created by human behavior. We’re all bound together by a mutually-supportive social contract. And somehow, we leave that contract on the other side of the door when we get inside a car.

I’m walking on the sidewalk and I nearly bump into another pedestrian. Invariably, we both apologize without even thinking about who might have been at fault. Why? Because it’s impossible not to identify that meatsack as another human being. It triggers all kinds of genetic programming that helps us all get along and not kill each other. Subconsciously, we emphasize (“hey, these things happen”). We also understand that yelling or shoving could have consequences.

Whereas when you trip over a curbstone you can yell at it all you want. Curbstones have zero empathy. This means that you can’t possibly hurt its feelings. It’s also why they can keep right on tripping people day after day without feeling any remorse.

Drivers who are prone to road rage might understand intellectually that the car that just cut them off (or is merely heeding a “No Turn On Red” traffic sign) contains a human being. But emotionally? Naw. It’s a car. Yell all you want and blow your horn! Maybe even scare ’em! Why not?

I mean, there are even psychos who throw big rocks off of highway overpasses. Yet dropping big rocks onto busy pedestrian thoroughfares doesn’t seem to be a widespread thing. Those with plenty of faith in humanity would say that it’s because identifying with the potential victims is unavoidable. The cynics would say that getting identified would be unavoidable. Either way, people don’t do it.

So I wonder. Will road-ragers be even angrier and more aggressive against driverless vehicles? Brake-checking a Waymo or even forcing one off the road might seem like kicking a Coke machine, despite the obvious consequences for other people.

I can’t relate to that kind of thinking. Even when I owned a car, I never felt any road rage. How about a different form of this same question: can a drive be expected to show a driverless car the same courtesy as one piloted by a human?

Again, it’s a question of empathy. I know how much it suuuucks when your exit is coming up and you’ve been signaling your lane change for a mile and nobody is letting you in. Would a Waymo car push that same “Be Kind” button in my head? I dunno.

As always, we can’t predict how a new technology is going to shape society and human behavior until it’s out there. For example, I’m gradually getting used to sending this kind of text to a friend

My ETA at the restaurant is
6:30. I can't WAIT to see
you! I've missed you so much
since you moved.

And getting this back

Yup

I can now interpret this as “The response was curt because s/he read this on a smartwatch. ‘Yup’ was one of the two or three canned replies the watch offered to send.” Whereas I once might have interpreted it as “Andy, you’re one of the reasons why I moved away. I only accepted your dinner invitation so I can see the look on your face when I explain it to you without omitting a single detail.”

Let’s get back to Waymo’s problem.

Self-driving car technology will need to deal with the problems caused by human road rage against driverless vehicles. Naturally, I have a brilliant solution:

Goons.

I’ll explain. When a fight breaks out during a pro hockey game, it’s not usually a case of two random players losing their tempers and throwing down. No. Some players are recruited into the NHL from the minors because they’re great enforcers, not because they’re great players.

“Ice Guardians” is a fine documentary about the history and role of hockey enforcers. It’s on Netflix.

The Enforcer (“goon” is impolite) is part of the game. Today’s players are so well armored that it’s tactically worthwhile for a defenseman to take a fifteen minute penalty if it means removing the league’s high-scorer from the game entirely. The math on this choice changes radically if that same defenseman knows that the opposing team’s roster also includes the league’s most efficient enforcer. A fighter who reputably once punished a player so severely that it changed his eye color permanently and they had to go to the DMV to have a new driver’s license issued.

Waymo’s fleet should contain Goon Cars. These cars are never occupied by human beings and they’re painted in a livery that’s impossible to overlook or to mistake for anything else. My suggestion: a checkerboard paint scheme incorporating alternating colors of “spray-on body primer” and “engine coolant pooled on asphalt.”

If a Waymo car is getting roughed up out there, it’ll transmit the offending car’s license plate and visual indentifiers to the network. The nearest Waymo Goon Car will plot an intercept course, pull up alongside, and administer a Corrective Action to the car’s bodywork. Even days later, if necessary, relying on APB reports sent out to other Waymo cars’ software.

The Goon Cars won’t receive the usual top layer of gloss coat. An Impala carrying the paint smears of a Waymo Goon’s signature colors will continue to caution other drivers long after the actual incident, just as the panic scent of an actual impala being torn apart by leopards warns the rest of the pack to maybe…you know, just chill.

It sounds like an extreme response, but really, once these Waymo Goon Cars have established their reputation, the highways will be safer for everybody.

The mere presence of Tony Twist or Damian Strohmeyer on the ice encouraged a more civilized level of gameplay. Similarly, the sight of a Waymo van with its front-mounted bully-bar, completely blacked-out windows, and signature checkerboard paint scheme (alternating the colors of spray-on body primer and engine coolant puddling on asphalt) will prompt every driver to ask themselves an important question:

“Yes, I could. But are the consequences worth it?”

In return for this innovation, I expect nothing but a reasonable per-vehicle licensing fee and the plaudits of a grateful nation.