Waymo Chief Executive Officer John Krafcik said his company’s self-driving software would likely have avoided the pedestrian death in which an Uber autonomous car was involved.
“We have a lot of confidence that our technology would be robust and would be able to handle situations like that one,” Krafcik said on Saturday in his first public comments since a pedestrian was killed by an Uber self-driving vehicle last Sunday night. The fatal incident in Tempe, Arizona, has rattled the industry and prompted lawmaker scrutiny. Alphabet Inc’s Waymo, the former Google car project, is considered the technical leader in the field. Waymo began ferrying passengers in Arizona last year, without safety drivers behind the wheel, and is planning a paid robo-taxi service this year.
Uber Technologies Inc halted its testing program on Monday. Other companies followed suit. Waymo declined to say if it was changing its plans, but kept vehicles on the road in Arizona. “For those of us at Waymo, it was a very sad day,” Krafcik said during a speech at the National Automobile Dealers Association conference in Las Vegas on Saturday. “It is that vision of safety and avoiding accidents just like that one that really bring us all together as a company.” Waymo is continuing its tests in Arizona, Krafcik said.
Uber’s fatal crash immediately sparked a series of questions, long debated by the nascent driverless car industry. Some states, particularly Arizona, have embraced the tech, permitting companies to test without backup drivers behind the wheel. Still, regulators nationwide have yet to settle on issues of liability and standard safeguards. California demands companies testing these cars disclose how many times humans must take over the systems – a rare requirement that sent some firms to other states with less-stringent regulation.
Waymo has been testing cars in 25 cities, although it is shuttling passengers in Phoenix. It plans to introduce that service in a second city this year, Krafcik said. The former automotive executive also told the dealer audience the tech giant is working to make personal car ownership work with self-driving. Krafcik played a video of Waymo’s test program in Phoenix. “This is a little bit of what the future looks like,” he said. “I don’t know how you feel about that, but there’s no one in the driver’s seat.”
Experts who saw video of the Uber crash pointed to apparent failures in Uber’s sensor system, which failed to stop or slow the car as the victim, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, crossed a street pushing a bicycle. Tempe police and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the collision. Ten US senators on Friday released a letter to companies testing autonomous cars asking them to remove provisions that prevent consumers from suing.
In 2017, Waymo opened a bitter lawsuit against Uber for allegedly stealing self-driving sensor designs. The companies settled in February with Waymo taking $245 million in Uber equity.