Waymo's stalled progress suggests fully driverless cars still have a long way to go

Waymo autonomous car

Car makers are racing to bring self-driving vehicles to city streets (Toyota has just announced a $500,000 investment in Uber's driverless car program), but the troubles suffered by Waymo suggest that it might still be several years before the tech is safe and reliable enough for real roads.

According to The Information, despite Waymo's ambitious plans to deliver a self-driving taxi service to passengers near its headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona later this year, its cars are still struggling to navigate a junction just outside the office, Driverless minivans have been known to stop suddenly at the intersection, presenting a risk for motorists who aren't used to such behavior.

Last year, Waymo released a promotional video claiming that it's the first car maker to stop using safety drivers, but The Information notes that only a few of its cars drive without a person behind the wheel, and those that do are monitored by operators who can take control if something goes amiss. 

Despite this, Waymo remains upbeat, and a company spokesperson said the its cars are "continually learning, and we’ve developed robust testing and validation processes that will allow us to safely expand our vehicles' driverless capabilities over time."

However, if its cars are struggling to cope in Arizona – a state popular with companies like Apple and Uber thanks to its straight, flat roads and light traffic – is it time for the company scale back its ambitious plans?

Slow down and take stock

As Steve Mitgang, CEO of intelligence company SmartDrive, told TechRadar when discussing autonomous trucks, real-world driving is very different to operating a vehicle in a totally controlled environment.

“As we go from engineers making a car move forwards and backwards, left and right to operating in the real world, we have to decide the key criteria for safety and efficiency," Mitgang said. "How do these things operate in the real world, which is messy? There’s rain, sleet, fog, and other drivers, who have a negative reaction."

Jaguar Land Rover is attempting to counter those negative reactions with novel ideas like 'virtual eyes' that look directly at other road users let them know they've been seen, but Waymo's struggles suggest the problem is more than just a matter of perception.

Rather than rushing to find a shortcut around the issue of trust, it might be better to pause, take stock, and consider why other road users are so wary around cars without drivers. Mitgang says the only way to ensure safety is to involve a third party that can implement standards – a process that would take far longer than Waymo's timescales allow.