Google self-driving spinoff Waymo: Humans can’t be trusted for backup, they nap, put on makeup

Putting on makeup. Messing with phones. Napping.

These are things Google spinoff Waymo’s autonomous-vehicle testers were caught doing when they were supposed to be poised to take over and drive in an emergency.

And if the company’s own employees couldn’t be trusted to do a proper job at backup during the all-important testing, imagine what your average negligent yo-yo might get up to while in a car that’s driving itself.

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Whether self-driving cars should be equipped with steering wheels and a brake pedal in case of emergency has been a focal point for much debate over autonomous vehicles. Waymo has for the past few years touted full autonomy — without need for human backup — as the goal for its technology.

But until Oct. 30, it was unclear whether Waymo was also still working on an autopilot-type system that would see people taking the wheel in dangerous situations. During a media tour of a company testing facility, Waymo CEO John Krafcik said his company was through with developing features for human backup drivers, thanks to incidents caught on video during testing in 2013, Reuters reported Oct. 31.

“What we found was pretty scary,” Krafcik told reporters Oct. 30, according to Reuters.

Test drivers were observed “napping, putting on makeup and fiddling with their phones as the vehicles traveled up to 56 mph,” the news service reported.

“Krafcik said the company determined a system that asked drivers to jump in at the sound of an alert was unsafe after seeing videos from inside self-driving cars during tests.”

The problem, said Krafcik, is that “it’s hard to take over because they have lost contextual awareness.”

Waymo has stopped developing features that let a person take control in dangerous situations, Krafcik said.

The decision to focus solely on full autonomy came a couple days after the backup driver was caught napping on camera, Krafcik said.

Since then, Waymo has argued against “handoffs” of control from autonomous systems to human drivers, Reuters reported.

“Our technology takes care of all of the driving, allowing passengers to stay passengers,” Waymo said in report this month.


Photo: John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo, the autonomous vehicle company created by Google parent company Alphabet, introduces a Chrysler Pacifica hybrid outfitted with Waymo’s own suite of sensors and radar at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017. (Paul Sancya/AP)


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