Waymo chief executive John Krafcik said he is confident his company’s technology “would be able to handle” a scenario like the one that resulted in a fatal accident involving a self-driving Uber vehicle, the first such death on a public road. Krafcik was speaking Saturday at a National Auto Dealers Association (NADA) convention in Las Vegas just six days after the accident; the ripple effects on automated-vehicle development and the auto industry as a whole are expected to continue for some time. Uber has since suspended its self-driving-vehicle testing across its operations in Tempe, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Toronto, and Toyota has said it will “temporarily pause” testing of its self-driving systems on public roads in Michigan and California.
It’s still unclear why Uber’s automated Volvo XC90 was unable to avoid fatally hitting 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg on March 18 as she crossed a road with her bike in Tempe, Arizona. Tempe police have released camera footage of the crash, and in an inward-facing video of the cockpit, the Uber human backup driver appears distracted and looking down in the moments leading up to the fatal collision with Herzberg. In an outward-facing view of the road ahead, Herzberg is seen with her bike, having crossed at least one lane of the road, just before she is hit. Questions such as why even a basic automated emergency braking system apparently failed to detect Herzberg remain. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.
Krafcik told NADA attendees his company has been shaken by what happened in Tempe. “For those of us at Waymo, it was a very sad day, because that was an accident that was in a car that had technology representing the self-driving space,” he said. He said that, at Waymo, “It is that mission of safety and avoiding accidents just like that one that really bring us all together as a company.”
Waymo, formerly known as Google’s self-driving-car program, said earlier this year that it has completed more than five million miles of autonomous-vehicle testing on public roads. Krafcik emphasized the company’s automated-vehicle technology goes through rigorous testing before it is deployed on its Chrysler Pacifica minivans.
Asked directly if Waymo’s self-driving technology would have reacted differently than Uber’s did in the fatal crash, Krafcik said he wanted to be respectful of the victim and noted that there are still ongoing investigations, but he added: “Based on our knowledge of what we’ve seen so far with that accident, and our own knowledge of the robustness that we’ve designed into our systems, I can say with some confidence that in situations like that one—pedestrians, and in this case a pedestrian bicyclist, or with a bicycle—we have a lot of confidence that our technology would be robust and would be able to handle situations like that.”
Regardless of how Waymo and Uber may differ technologically, the companies are linked financially in a frenemy sort of way. Waymo sued the ride-hailing company, reportedly for $1 billion in damages, alleging it had stolen trade secrets. The two settled in February 2018, giving Waymo a 0.3 percent stake in Uber. With Uber then valued at $72 billion, that added up to about a $245 million holding.