One Waymon fully independent minivans got stuck at an intersection in Chandler, Arizona, and forced the company to send a roadside team to come to dismantle it. But when the crew arrived, the vehicle began to drive away before it crashed and completely blocked the three-lane road. It was a rare moment that was filmed of one of Waymon’s unpaved vehicles operating unevenly.
The event was recorded from inside the vehicle by Joel Johnson, who posts videos on YouTube under the handle JJRicks Studios his experience using Waymon autonomous level 4 vehicles that operate without a safety driver at the wheel. Johnson’s video is a rare unedited look at what happens when one of the world’s most skilled independent vehicles stumbles upon a few orange safety paws.
“It’s not stuck anymore and now it’s blocking, okay,” the remote operator hears Johnson say at one point in the video, to which he replies, “Well, this is interesting!”
The company, owned by Alphabet, has about 600 vehicles as part of the fleet. More than 300 vehicles operate in a service area of about 100 square kilometers, which includes the cities of Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa and Tempe – although its completely unpaved cars are limited to an area that is only half that size. (Waymo has not revealed how many of its vehicles operate without safety drivers.)
In late 2018, the company launched to a limited audience a riding service called Waymo One, but the only customers who got access were people who were first verified through Waymon’s early beta tester program. Waymo said it has about 1,500 monthly active users of both programs, the same number it announced in December 2019.
Waymo has a bunch of telecommuters who look at the real-time feeds from the eight cameras in each vehicle and can help at the touch of a button if the software crashes into a difficult place and needs a human eye to figure out what’s going on. But the company argues that the remote support team cannot control vehicles, but only makes suggestions to remove cars from difficult situations.
One of these situations arose during Johnson’s recent ride. The car wanted to turn right onto a street whose Orange cones blocked the traffic lane, apparently confusing the vehicle. In a statement to Johnson, Waymo said it “noted the unusual situation and asked the remote fleet expert for attention to provide additional information.”
Things got bitter in that the remote expert “gave erroneous instructions, which made it difficult for the Waymo driver to continue on his intended route, and required the Waymo road service team to complete the trip,” the company said.
The remote operator tells Johnson that Waymo will not designate a roadside task force to monitor all of his fully independent vehicles if something goes wrong. The crew is usually “two or five miles away,” he said. “It was never prescribed personally.”
At this point in the video, the car begins to reverse from its location, where it slightly blocked the road to the place where it completely blocked traffic. Then it stops again, as if unsure how to proceed. The bike turns slightly to its right, but nothing happens. “Very interesting,” Johnson says, watching all of this happen from one middle captain’s seat. “Now it blocks the whole band instead of half.”
Meanwhile, a flat truck drives past all the Orange Cones that originally mixed the Waymo car. And as soon as the road service crew arrives, the vehicle suddenly decides to lift it out of its embarrassing situation. Johnson sounds disappointed that he should never be in touch with Waymon’s troublemakers as the car accelerates.
But no, no! More orange cones will appear, and the Waymo vehicle will slow down and then stop again. The roadside crew eventually appears, and the car tries to escape again. But in the end, it surrenders, and everything succeeds. The full video is worth watching if you want an insider into what happens when our Driverless Futures face an unresolved issue of small road construction.