Waymo CEO says company’s tech could have avoided fatal Uber crash

Mar 25, 2018, 1:44 PM | Updated: Mar 26, 2018, 12:18 pm
(Wikimedia Commons photo)...
(Wikimedia Commons photo)
(Wikimedia Commons photo)

PHOENIX — The head of Waymo, formerly Google’s driverless car project, said at the NADA conference in Las Vegas that his company’s technology could have handled a situation and avoided the deadly Uber crash in Tempe.

“For those of us at Waymo, it was a very sad day because that was an accident that was in a car that had technology representing the self-driving space. For those of us at Waymo, it is the mission of safety and avoiding accidents just like that one that bring us all together as a company,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik said.

“So, it struck us, I think, in a very, very, very major way. The company was founded on the principles of safety and mobility and access for all and we’ve dedicated ourselves to making this technology safe.”

Krafcik made the comments in response to a crash involving a self-driving Uber vehicle that resulted in the death of 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg last Sunday. An Uber employee was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash, but the car was operating in autonomous mode.

“I want to be really respectful of Elaine, the woman who lost her life, and her family. I also want to recognize the fact there are many different investigations going on now regarding what happened in Tempe,” he said.

“Really all that we can say is based on our knowledge of what we’ve seen so far …and our own knowledge of the robustness that we’ve designed into our systems…in situations like that one – in this case a pedestrian or a pedestrian with a bicycle — we have a lot of confidence that our technology would be robust and would be able to handle situations like that one.”

Video of the crash showed Herzberg crossing the street with her bike near Mill and Curry roads on Sunday night. The employee, 44-year-old Rafael Vasquez, could be seen in the video looking away from the road for several seconds leading up to the crash.

In an exclusive interview with the San Francisco Chronicle published before the video’s release, Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir said the crash may have been unavoidable.

“It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway,” the chief told the outlet.

The chief said it appeared that Uber may not be at fault in the accident, though other charges could result.

“I won’t rule out the potential to file charges against the (backup driver) in the Uber vehicle,” she said, adding that it would be “new ground” should the robotic car found to be at fault.

Waymo announced last month that it would start charging to pick up and drop off riders with their autonomous Chrysler minivans after the Arizona Department of Transportation approved the company’s application to become a transportation network company similar to Uber and Lyft.

Krafcik said the company has driven on public roads for more than five million miles and has traveled five billion miles in computer simulation in order to test the software and sensing.

“We’ve developed tens of thousands of actual physical tests that really put our technology through its paces and ensure that it’s strong and capable and of course very, very safe.”

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Waymo CEO says company’s tech could have avoided fatal Uber crash