The most serious The accident to date involving an unmanned truck could only result in moderate injuries, but it showed how unprepared local governments and law enforcement agencies are for the new technology.
On May 5, a Waymo Via class 8 truck, operating offline with a safety operator at the wheel, pulled a trailer northbound on Interstate 45 toward Dallas, Texas. At 3:11 pm, near Ennis, a modified Peterbilt was driving in the far right lane when a passing truck and trailer entered its lane.
A Waymo Via truck driver told police that another semi-trailer continued to maneuver in the lane, knocking the Waymo truck and trailer off the roadway. She was later taken to the hospital with injuries that Waymo described as “moderate” in her report to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The second truck left without stopping.
While Waymo’s self-driving semi-trailer was not at fault for the hit, the incident exposes gaps in communication mechanisms and raises questions about how the public and law enforcement are prepared to deal with heavy, fast-moving vehicles that don’t have a driver.
The stakes for the autonomous trucking industry, which is still in its infancy, cannot be higher. One failure, even if the company is not at fault, can tarnish public opinion about the technology.
Origins of Waymo Trucking
Waymo began testing its unmanned technology on semi-trailers in 2017, starting in California and Arizona. At the time it was in the middle epic legal battle with Uber over technology allegedly taken from Waymo by engineer Anthony Lewandowski and subsequently acquired by Uber as part of self-driving truck startup Otto.
Waymo’s self-driving trucks, which are part of a delivery and logistics division the company calls Waymo Via, rely on robotic-like technology: a suite of sensors including cameras, radar and lidar, and powerful on-board computers. All have skilled truck drivers – known as autonomous professionals – in the driver’s seat.
In 2018, Waymo started shipping in Georgia and branded its delivery business. Waymo Via in 2020. It then expanded to New Mexico and Texas and made deals with logistics companies such as JB Hunt, UPS and CH Robinson. Earlier this month, he committed long-term strategic partnership with Uber and announced pilot delivery program with Wayfair, an online home goods store.
This pilot project is due to begin in July on the same stretch of I-45 where the crash occurred in May.
Inside the crash
Using local police and Department of Transportation reports, and data provided by Waymo to NHTSATechCrunch attempted to reconstruct the worst self-driving truck crash on US roads to date.
According to Waymo, the Peterbilt 579 truck was not hauling cargo for customers or partners; “standard” testing with a weighted load was carried out.
Behind the wheel was a 40-year-old autonomous specialist with a decade of truck driving experience; there was also an operator-programmer on board. Like many Waymo vehicle workers, both were actually hired transdevmultinational transport and mobile company.
While the ultimate goal of automated trucks is to eliminate or at least significantly reduce staff costs, self-driving truck startups today work with a safe driver and an engineer or technician on board.
Waymo reported that his truck was driving offline at 62 mph, just below the speed limit, when another truck swerved into his lane and ran him off the road.
Waymo told TechCrunch that the security operator did not take control of the truck from its autonomous system.
“Technology was not a factor as this collision was caused by a human driver of another vehicle as they crossed a lane line and collided with the cab of a Waymo vehicle and continued moving,” spokeswoman Katherine Barna wrote in an email.
Police photographs of Ennis, obtained under public records laws, show a Waymo truck and trailer on the side of a highway. Apparently, they did not manage to slide onto a parallel suburban road with a protective fence. An Ennis police officer noted that the truck itself suffered only minor damage, with one image showing damage to the truck’s lidar laser range sensor.
However, the driver was taken to a nearby hospital with unspecified moderate injuries. The officer on duty qualified the incident as a hit-and-run. Waymo told TechCrunch that it understands the driver is doing well after the injury. The driver did not respond to a TechCrunch request for comment.
Since the system was active for at least some of the 30 seconds leading up to the collision, Waymo was required to report it to NHTSA in order to comply with the agency’s requirements. Standing General Order for Fault Reporting for automated vehicles.
Gaps in the system
There are no checkboxes in the Texas Department of Transportation accident report to indicate whether the vehicles involved are running full or partial automation, and this information was not recorded in Waymo’s accident report narrative.
Ennis Police Detective Paul Asby, who later investigated the incident, told TechCrunch he didn’t know the truck was autonomous at the time of the collision.
At the hospital, a Waymo driver told police that the escaped vehicle belonged to Helwig Trucking, a local carrier with about 15 trucks. (Waymo also confirmed that the truck’s cameras captured enough detail to identify the other vehicle.) Helwig did not respond to a request for comment.
The driver left her phone number with the police and was released from the hospital, while the Waymo truck was towed away. Detective Asby was assigned to the case, and he quickly determined that the accident was the fault of Helwig’s driver. He contacted the company to get their side of the story and insurance details. But when it came to Waymo, Asby met with a wall of silence.
“I was going to talk to the driver because she was taken to the hospital, but I tried to contact her cell phone and he said it was not a valid number,” he said. “The same goes for the passenger who was there with her.”
Subsequent calls to Waymo itself went unanswered. “They never answered my calls. I blocked the case, but the insurance information is there if they want,” he says. “Maybe they’re so rich they don’t care.”
Waymo told TechCrunch that he was not aware of any attempts by Ennis PD to contact him for information and that he had no need to contact the department itself.
how are you
The accident at Ennis isn’t the only accident involving a Waymo trailer. In February, a similar Waymo Peterbilt 579 southbound on Interstate 10 near Sukaton, Arizona was hit by a box truck in an adjacent lane, which had just also hit a bus. The Waymo car was traveling at 50 mph in the 75 mph limit zone. TechCrunch was not immediately able to obtain a police report detailing the crash; there were no reports of injuries.
If Waymo weren’t required to report outages to the NHTSA, chances are they would never have been discovered. The official crash reports compiled by Texas, which has welcomed several self-driving truck trips on its highways, are not enough to fully record incidents involving self-driving vehicles. Local law enforcement has historically been just as ill-equipped to deal with driving systems as opposed to manipulating people.
Waymo is trying to close those gaps, says Barna. “Waymo created the Waymo Driver to interact with first responders; and worked closely with public safety authorities to ensure the safe deployment of our technology in every market we operate in,” she told TechCrunch. “We have a team with years of law enforcement experience who have trained hundreds of officers and firefighters in California, Arizona and Texas, learning in detail the best practices for safely interacting with Waymo vehicles.”
“We have a mountain of work to integrate these things into society,” said Steve Viscellisociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies trucking and serves as an advisor Aurora unmanned truck an effort. “We need to talk more about what they mean for supply chains, for workers and for highways. There are a lot of people who will do stupid and aggressive things around them because they don’t like self-driving cars.”
Waymo told the US Department of Transportation that it has 47 trucks that have traveled over 1.6 million miles. TechCrunch didn’t say how many of those miles were driven under one level or another of automatic control.
Automated trucking companies have “learned the basic principles of driving,” Viscelli said. “This is what happens to a family on vacation, when a tire is flat, or when there is construction going on that changes the shape of the road, or rubbish on the highway. When you have confidence in these issues, it will determine when they are on the way. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see driverless trucks in the lanes next year.”
Credit: techcrunch.com /