Waymo robotaxi drives down wrong side of street after being alarmed by unicyclists

Strange tales from San Francisco

A self-driving Waymo taxi in San Francisco was filmed passing unicyclists and scooters – which would have been mundane if it weren't for the fact that the autonomous vehicle drove down the wrong side of the street to do so.

The computer error happened at the intersection of Mission and First in the South of Market district around 2130 PT on Friday, where a crowd of electric-powered unicyclists and other riders were together flowing down the street. It was filmed by at least two people, who shared their footage online. One video in particular captures the event very well, providing a first-person view from one of the cyclists involved.

The footage shows the cycling crowd crossing an intersection, with the Waymo taxi following close behind. It initially stuck to the single right-hand lane as it's supposed to under traffic law, but quickly and automatically shifted into one of the two left-hand lanes in an attempt to overtake and/or avoid the collective.

That put the robot vehicle into the path of oncoming traffic, or rather would have done if that part of the road hadn't been clear at the time.

After a tense half-minute of the self-driving vehicle driving seemingly in the wrong lane, one brave unicyclist pulled out in front of the car, causing it to stop immediately. The crowd made room for the robotaxi and the Waymo finally crossed back into the right-hand lane.

Ostensibly, this was a mistake and the car perhaps should have slowed down behind the crowd rather than attempting to pass the group by maneuvering into the oncoming lane. However, Google-stablemate Waymo doesn't quite think so, and says its car got into the other lane because it was the safer thing to do.

In a statement to the media, a Waymo spinner said its confused car "detected that there may be a risk of a person within that crowd who had fallen down, and decided to carefully initiate a passing maneuver when the opposing lane was clear to move around what could be an obstacle and a safety concern.

The Waymo remained in the oncoming lane for longer than necessary before returning to its original lane of travel

"After starting that maneuver, out of an abundance of caution around these vulnerable road users, and to avoid getting too close or cutting them off, the Waymo remained in the oncoming lane for longer than necessary before returning to its original lane of travel."

"The safety of all road users is a top priority for Waymo, and we look forward to learning from this unique event," the statement concluded. We've asked Waymo for further details.

This incident will probably not endear some denizens of San Francisco to Waymo and its fleet of self-driving app-hailed taxis. In June of last year, a Waymo car ran over and killed a dog, and in February one of its vehicles hit a cyclist. In both cases, Waymo said the accidents were unavoidable, in that its cars were not given enough time to react.

Some of us vultures have taken self-driving Waymo rides in San Francisco and can report nothing bad happened; it got from A to B as expected. That's admittedly a small sample size.

Still, hooligans in the US West Coast city got Waymo back by storming one of its robotaxis, and burning it down after it drove past Chinese New Year crowds. A 14-year-old boy has been charged with arson.

By contrast, the unicyclists were remarkably well-behaved. ®

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