Waymo issues software fix after driverless taxi hits telephone pole

NHTSA already probing robo-car biz over crashes with 'clearly visible objects'

Waymo is updating its self-driving cars' software after another accident in Phoenix, Arizona, that the driverless taxi biz is blaming on faulty maps and code.

Details of what is technically a voluntary software recall of Waymo's fifth-generation automated driver system (ADS) have not yet been published on the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website, which is where one would expect such information to appear. However, Waymo separately confirmed the recall, and the incident that sparked it, to The Register

"Following an event on May 21 in Phoenix, we have chosen to file a voluntary software recall with the NHTSA to address a mapping and software issue," a Waymo spokesperson told us. Waymo said it had already deployed this update and said the incident had no effect on its current operations. 

Absent the official report to the NHTSA – we're told it won't be published until tomorrow at the earliest – we'll have to take Waymo's explanation of the prang, which it says involved only minor damage to one of its driverless vehicles and no injuries to anyone. 

The empty Waymo vehicle involved in the May 21 accident was in a Phoenix alley, and when pulling over to pick up a passenger, it hit a wooden telephone pole at a speed of approximately eight miles per hour, the biz told us. Waymo's description of the event generally matches news descriptions of the mild crash.

That software update will presumably ensure cars no longer bash into the poles or that pole in particular.

The safety regulators are going to love this

Waymo last filed a recall report in February after a prior accident in Phoenix that saw a vehicle hit a backwards-facing pickup truck that the robo-car biz said was only struck because it was being improperly towed. 

Waymo called the February collision a "rare incident," though the NHTSA begs to differ: It's right now probing about two dozen errors by Waymo self-driving rides.

"This office opened [its investigation] following 22 reports of unexpected driving behaviors leading to crashes and potential traffic safety law violations in certain vehicles equipped with the Waymo 5th Generation ADS," Scott Simmons of the NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) said in a letter to Waymo last month. 

Opened in May, the NHTSA investigation into those traffic law violations is ongoing, with the most recent letter [PDF] from the ODI sent to Waymo yesterday. That letter includes no mention of the May 21 collision, but does make mention of "additional incidents" that have occurred since the investigation began, nine of which the ODI identified in its opening letter to Waymo in May.

"Although this office is unaware of injury allegations, several of the incidents involved collisions with clearly visible objects that a competent driver would be expected to avoid," this week's letter said. "A number of these incidents also occurred in the proximity of other road users, including pedestrians."

The ODI's letter yesterday asked Waymo for information on all applicable accidents outside of the original 22 that triggered the investigation, of which the May 21 incident that triggered the recall definitely seems to be an instance of. 

"As we serve more riders in more cities, we will continue our safety first approach, working to earn trust with our riders, community members, regulators, and policymakers," Waymo told us.

Whether the NHTSA will ultimately agree remains to be seen - we've reached out for comment, and the NHTSA declined to discuss the matter besides confirming receipt of the recall, citing its open investigation of Waymo. ®

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