Waymo shut down an autonomous driving test after driver fell asleep at the wheel

By Darren Cassey, PA Motoring Reporter

Waymo has revealed that it shut down an early test of its autonomous driving aids after an employee fell asleep behind the wheel.

Speaking at the Frankfurt motor show this week, Waymo chief executive John Krafcik said that the company’s initial plan in 2009 was to introduce a system that could drive on the motorway by itself but would require a driver to pay attention and take over when required.

This sort of system is now commonplace in high-end cars, pioneered by Tesla, which calls its software ‘Autopilot’. Ironically, Krafcik said his team would refer to their project by the same name internally.

However, they decided to make a switch towards full autonomy after cutting a test short for safety reasons. Krafcik shared footage of various employees with long commutes who had been recruited to test the software in 2013.

Each employee was told they must pay attention at all times, and while they could take their hands off the wheel, they must remain alert. They were told cameras would be fitted to their cars, and they would be removed from the program if they were seen flouting the rules.

In the footage a driver can be seen texting while driving, another plugs their phone into their laptop to charge it, and another applies make-up. The program was shut down just a few weeks after it started when a driver fell asleep at nearly 60mph.

(Waymo)

Although the test was a failure in one sense, Krafcik said it gave “priceless insight into a real conundrum”.

“Our AutoPilot system was very advanced. It used multiple cameras, radar and lidar, with a massive on-board computer,” he said.

“In fact, it was so advanced that human drivers became too comfortable, too quickly. And so, we realised this was a big problem for driver assist technology — the better you make it, the more likely humans would be to trust it too much.”

After the test was shut down, Waymo began a new “clean-sheet approach” to fully autonomous driving. It has since worked with various car manufacturers, including Jaguar Land Rover and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

Waymo says it is currently developing “the world’s most experience driver”, where the self-driving software learns from every mile it drives and feeds this back to other Waymo vehicles.

It says its cars have driven 10 million miles in the real world and 10 billion miles in simulations.