The New Yorker releases blockbuster story about Waymo’s origins.
In the early days of what ultimately became Waymo, Google’s self-driving car division (known at the time as “Project Chauffeur”), there were “more than a dozen accidents, at least three of which were serious,” according to a new article in The New Yorker.
The magazine profiled Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer who was at the center of the Waymo v. Uber trade secrets lawsuit. According to the article, back in 2011, Levandowski also modified the autonomous software to take the prototype Priuses on “otherwise forbidden routes.”
Citing an anonymous source, The New Yorker reports that Levandowski sat behind the wheel as the safety driver, along with Isaac Taylor, a Google executive. But while they were in the car, the Prius “accidentally boxed in another vehicle,” a Camry.
As The New Yorker wrote:
A human driver could easily have handled the situation by slowing down and letting the Camry merge into traffic, but Google’s software wasn’t prepared for this scenario. The cars continued speeding down the freeway side by side. The Camry’s driver jerked his car onto the right shoulder. Then, apparently trying to avoid a guard rail, he veered to the left; the Camry pinwheeled across the freeway and into the median. Levandowski, who was acting as the safety driver, swerved hard to avoid colliding with the Camry, causing Taylor to injure his spine so severely that he eventually required multiple surgeries.
This was apparently just one of several accidents in Project Chauffeur’s early days:
According to former Google executives, in Project Chauffeur’s early years there were more than a dozen accidents, at least three of which were serious. One of Google’s first test cars, nicknamed KITT, was rear-ended by a pickup truck after it braked suddenly, because it couldn’t distinguish between a yellow and a red traffic light. Two of the Google employees who were in the car later sought medical treatment. A former Google executive told me that the driver of the pickup, whose family was in the truck, was unlicensed, and asked the company not to contact insurers. KITT’s rear was crushed badly enough that it was permanently taken off the road.
Prior to 2014, AV companies’ collisions were not required to be reported under California state law.
When Ars contacted Waymo on Tuesday to ask about the “more than a dozen accidents” figure, Johnny Luu, a spokesman, called almost immediately and requested to speak off the record. When we declined, he later responded by email.
“You probably have seen this CA DMV page with a list of all reported collisions, including minor incidents such as a Waymo vehicle striking a curb (the damage was a deflated tire) or when another vehicle tried to squeeze through a narrow [part] of the road and scratched our vehicle’s side mirror,” he wrote.
“As to the report itself, we disagree with The New Yorker’s characterization of the events dubbed ‘Prius vs Camry.’”
When Ars specifically asked what Waymo disagreed with, Luu did not answer directly.
“The New Yorker declined to provide us with a list of incidents they were referring to, including the report of three serious crashes,” he continued. “On our end, we have always abided by all reporting requirements, including those covering regular car accidents, as well as the CA DMV regulations on autonomous testing that went into effect in 2014.”
When we asked specifically about KITT, Luu said that “authorities were called at the time of the accident.”
“Internally we document/track our testing program on many fronts (as you can imagine), including collisions (we also track the number of disengages—i.e. where our driver takes over during testing, etc—all of this is covered in our safety report amongst other aspects of our testing program),” he continued.
This safety report, dated 2018, does not appear to have any detailed descriptions of the pre-2014 incidents. However, a June 2015 Google report describes 12 incidents between 2010 and the date of the report but does not seem to indicate that any of them were “serious.”
Charles Duhigg, The New Yorker reporter, did not immediately respond to Ars’ query about what constituted “serious” in this context.
“Anthony Levandowki’s disregard for safety does not reflect the mission and values we have at Waymo where hundreds of engineers on our team work each day to bring this technology safely to our roads,” Luu added by email. “Our company was founded to improve road safety, and so we hold ourselves to a high safety standard.”
Levandowski did not respond to Ars’ request for comment.
Waymo is expected to launch its on-demand autonomous car service in Arizona in the coming months.