For at least the past five years, drivers have been expecting self-driving cars to hit the road en masse. Search engine and research giant Google has seemingly led the charge, but a recent setback in the design of their former autonomous driving system may change the future of how these systems are developed.
Google’s autonomous vehicle program research transitioned to Alphabet Inc, a conglomerate created by the company after corporate restructuring in October of 2015. Waymo, the continuation of Google’s research project, is headed by John Krafcik, once CEO of Hyundai Motor America and president of True Car Inc. Waymo revealed that a safety feature which placed control of the autonomous vehicle back in the hands of the driver under certain conditions had to be scrapped after tests revealed it was simply too dangerous.
The tests in question involved a common feature in most self-driving vehicles. While perfectly suited for long, straight stretches of highway with little variance, these systems will disengage autopilot and require the driver to steer during situations that require tricky turns and complex maneuvering. Waymo naturally planned to follow suit and include a similar precaution, but tests showed that drivers were more often than not caught too unawares to safely regain control of the vehicle once the autonomous feature had been disengaged. Footage from their tests revealed drivers were often preoccupied with putting on makeup, playing with their smartphones, or even napping while the vehicle carried on at nearly 60 miles per hour.
Simply put, the drivers in the test cases were so reliant on and trusting of the autonomous feature that they seemed unconcerned of the possibility that they may have to retake control of the vehicle. The system worked by sounding an alarm when driver input is needed, but if the driver is napping or otherwise distracted, Waymo and Krafcik felt they simply could not respond quickly and intelligently enough in the event of an emergency.
Because of the this, Waymo is shifting entirely away from a dual system and instead focusing on a self-driving car that completely removes the need for driver input. The goal, Krafcik told interviewers during a recent tour of Waymo’s facilities, and later in a monthly report, is to allow “passengers to stay passengers.” The company’s shift in focus may delay a wider launch of their system, but overall the move seems more in the spirit of what the consumer expects when they think of self-driving vehicles.