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Waymo self-driving robotaxi goes rogue with passenger inside, escapes support staff

We speak to man who experienced and recorded wild ride first hand

Video A Waymo self-driving car got stuck several times, held up traffic intermittently, and departed unexpectedly when assistance arrived. The wayward autonomous vehicle was finally commandeered by a support driver.

Joel Johnson has recorded several dozen videos documenting his rides in Waymo robotaxis which he posts to his website and YouTube Channel.

Video 54 details how a ride last week in Chandler, Arizona, went awry when his Waymo car balked at turning right from West Linda Lane onto North Dobson Road, a four-lane road where the right hand lane of the two southbound lanes had been blocked by traffic cones.

"Oh, so, how are we going to turn right when the right lane is closed off?" Johnson can be heard narrating to himself 12 minutes and 25 seconds into the 35 minute video below, as stuck drivers beep.

Moments later, Waymo rider support calls. "It looks like your car has paused," the Waymo customer service rep informs Johnson. "We are going to be sending our Waymo Road Assistance."

Strap in tight

Johnson is advised to remain seated with his seat belt fastened in case the car starts moving again, which it does: about four minutes later, the car decides to turn into the unblocked lefthand southbound land, only to swerve back into the right hand lane between two traffic cones after passing the "Keep Left" sign that directs drivers not to be in that lane.

"Oh, I don't think it was supposed to do that," Johnson said to the Waymo operator, still on the line. "...Oh now, it's blocking the entire road."

A few minutes later, the car reverses into the open left-hand lane.

"Okay, so we 're backing out," said Johnson. "Very interesting."

"So it backed out…," the operator said.

"And then now it's blocking the whole lane instead of half of it," Johnson replied.

About ten minutes into the kerfuffle, amid confusion about the actual ETA of the promised roadside assistance (the resumption of motion cancelled the initial roadside assistance call), a construction truck approached slowly in the blocked right hand lane, heading northbound against traffic to collect the traffic cones.

After passing the stalled robotaxi, the construction vehicle halts and the driver gets out to help redirect traffic. When the driver approaches, Johnson informs him that he can't move the Waymo and that Roadside Assistance is coming.

Moments later, the car begins turning back into the open left lane, stops suddenly when passed by another car, and resumes moving before Roadside Assistance can intervene.

'Hurry up, it's gonna escape!'

After driving southbound for a minute or so, the intrepid Waymo comes to a halt in the left lane of North Dobson Road after encountering more traffic cones.

Addressing the support operator, Johnson said of the planned route displayed on-screen in the car, "I don't know if you can see the planner, but it wants to go halfway between lanes, like right over the cones."

Eventually, Roadside Assistance pulls up behind the stopped Waymo. The car then decides to depart before Waymo's driver can take manual control, only to again get stuck amid the cones.

"You better hurry up, it's gonna escape," Johnson remarked.

"The car took off again?" the operator said.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, yes," said Johnson as the car's steering wheel turns on its own. "Uh well, a little bit, and then it ... this is, um. Now it's ... I don't even know what's going on anymore."

Finally, the Roadside Assistance driver gets into the car and takes over to complete the ride. Here's the full video:

Youtube Video

In a statement emailed to The Register, Waymo recounted the adventure:

While driving fully autonomously through an extended work zone, the Waymo Driver detected an unusual situation and requested the attention of a remote Fleet Response specialist to provide additional information. During that interaction, the Fleet Response team provided incorrect guidance, which made it challenging for the Waymo Driver to resume its intended route, and required Waymo’s Roadside Assistance team to complete the trip. While the situation was not ideal, the Waymo Driver operated the vehicle safely until Roadside Assistance arrived. Throughout, Waymo’s team was in touch with the rider, who provided thoughtful and helpful feedback that allows us to continue learning and improving the Waymo Driver. Our team has already assessed the event and improved our operational process.

Easy rider

Johnson, in a phone interview with The Register, took the incident in stride, having documented multiple rides where it's been necessary to disengage the Waymo driver software.

He said when he saw the traffic cones, "I figured it would get stuck." And he insisted he's mostly fine with it. He said he didn't feel unsafe and trusted Waymo's technology. However, he did acknowledge however that some rough spots remain.

"Waymo seems to have a bit of issues with the weather whenever it rains here in Chandler," he said.

Asked whether he believes Waymo's robotaxis should be operating on the road, he said, "I think it's ready for this area and that's why they launched here." The roads in Chandler, he said, are wide open, in a grid format, and allow for a lot of possible detours.

"In this situation, there was some internal miscommunication," he said, adding that he hopes the Alphabet-owned Google stablemate will improve its internal processes. "Overall, the Waymo Roadside Assistance and rider support is helpful."

El Reg has previously reported that Google's self-driving cars struggled with stop lights, sunsets, junctions, and the Arizona heat.

In a YouTube video commenting on Johnson's adventure, Mahmood Hikmet, head of research and development at self-driving bus biz Ohmio, remarked, "If the passenger inside the vehicle is put into a situation where they have to wave and signal to the vehicle behind them in order to go around them, that's not exactly ideal from a robotaxi perspective."

"If Waymo just allowed Joel to drive this vehicle to safety, a lot of this could have been avoided," Hikmet added. ®

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