A couple of months ago, one of Waymo’s modified Peterbilt “self-driving” trucks was the victim in a “hit and run” caused by another tractor-trailer. “Normally” the first thing a driver wants to do in this situation is gather all the details possible, get that incident report, and go after the other truck’s insurance for repairs. But a new TechCrunch.com article caught my attention, and someone didn’t want to talk.
Texas, capital of autonomous trucking
On the afternoon of May 5, a Waymo-equipped Class 8 truck was headed northbound on I-45 outside Ennis, Texas. It was pulling a trailer with a test load to simulate actual behavior. At 3:11 p.m., another truck began to overtake the Peterbilt and started to merge back into the right lane.
The Waymo Via was in autonomous mode with its safety operator and software engineer when the other truck struck it. It forced the Waymo truck off the road and into the unpaved median. The safety driver, in an NHTSA report submitted by Waymo, reportedly suffered “moderate” injuries. The other truck, later discovered to be owned by Helwig, drove off without stopping.
The wall of silence from Waymo
Whenever a very expensive piece of equipment, especially one with a ton of gadgets and gizmos strapped to it, is damaged, the first thing one should do is get an incident report and insurance information. Well, the officer compiling said report met some rather unusual behavior on Waymo’s part.
Ennis Police Department Detective Paul Asby was assigned to the hit-and-run case. Usually, the victim is more than happy to be available and to answer questions. And usually the offender is tight-lipped and says the bare minimum. This time, it was backwards. And even TechCrunch had trouble getting the details for its story.
Using camera footage from the onboard data recorder, Detective Asby was able to identify Helwig Trucking as the carrier involved in the incident. Helwig, although they did not want to talk to the press, answered all questions and gave details about the truck in question.
However, Waymo, it seems, is a bit on the “minimum information needed” in their responses, if the company gave them. Detective Asby had a hard time tracking down information, since the numbers given to police when the truck was towed were not working.
“I was going to speak to the driver because she was taken to the hospital. I’ve tried to contact her cell phone and it says it’s not a valid number. The same thing for the passenger who was in there with her.”Detective Paul Asby, Ennis Police Department to Tech Crunch
Detective Asby’s attempts to contact Waymo also went unanswered. Waymo told TechCrunch that it was unaware of Asby’s attempts to talk to company officials, and it did not need to talk to the police. The case was inactivated, with details in the file if either side wanted them.
Was someone not paying attention at the wheel?
Even if it is an automated truck, the safety driver should have been paying attention to the situation. So why didn’t she, as an “autonomous vehicle specialist” with supposedly 10 years of experience as a truck driver, take over control? A simple tap on the brakes would have been enough to dodge a hit on the cab like that.
I’ve never seen a Waymo Via up close, and have never been behind the wheel of an automated truck. But it’s a Class 8 truck, with supposedly similar controls to the ones I have driven. Shouldn’t it be as easy as turning off cruise control and making the necessary adjustments?
Hopefully the FMCSA/NHTSA investigation will shed more details on the incident than the parties involved. We need to make sure incidents like this are as few and far between as possible.