US watchdog chases Waymo robocars to catch violations

Reports of collisions with stationary objects and failing to obey traffic laws

The US National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Monday opened an investigation into self-driving car maker Waymo following reports that its robocars have not been complying with traffic laws.

The NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) said [PDF] it has received reports of 22 incidents in which Waymo cars running the its fifth-generation automated driving system (ADS) had crashed or "exhibited driving behavior that potentially violated traffic safety laws."

The incidents include collisions with objects like gates, chains, parked vehicles, as well as showing an apparent disregard for general traffic safety.

Waymo reported some of its own incidents, fulfilling its obligations under NHTSA rules but other issues, including its vehicles entering construction zones or heading toward oncoming traffic, came to the agency through public reports.

"Based on initial evaluation of these incidents, NHTSA understands that the Waymo ADS was either engaged throughout the incident or, in certain cases when supervised by an in-vehicle test driver, the ADS disengaged in the moments just before an incident occurred," the agency said.

The ODI characterized its inquiry as a preliminary evaluation of Waymo's fifth-generation ADS. The investigation will assess how the robocars avoid collisions and detect and respond to traffic control devices.

A Waymo spokesperson brushed off the incidents by suggesting the number is statistically insignificant compared to its overall successful operations.

"At Waymo we currently serve over 50 thousand weekly trips for our riders in some of the most challenging and complex environments," a spokesperson for the robocar concern told The Register.

"We are proud of our performance and safety record over tens of millions of autonomous miles driven, as well as our demonstrated commitment to safety transparency. NHTSA plays a very important role in road safety and we will continue to work with them as part of our mission to become the world’s most trusted driver."

It's not just Waymo under the microscope. Last week, the ODI said it was looking at Zoox robocars based on reports that ADS-equipped vehicles had braked suddenly, causing motorcycles following behind to collide with the car and sustain minor injuries.

GM Cruise, which suspended autonomous taxi service in San Francisco after injuring a pedestrian last October and later saw NHTSA recall [PDF] the cars, on Monday said it was resuming autonomous driving – with supervision – in Phoenix, Arizona. ®

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