The most serious One crash to date involving a self-driving truck may have caused only moderate injuries, but it revealed just how ill-prepared local government and law enforcement are to deal with the new technology.
On May 5, a Waymo Via Class 8 truck operating in autonomous mode with a human safety operator at the wheel was transporting a trailer northbound on Interstate 45 toward Dallas, Texas. At 3:11 p.m., just outside Ennis, the modified Peterbilt was traveling in the far right lane when a passing truck and trailer entered its lane.
The driver of the Waymo Via truck told police that the other semi-trailer continued to maneuver into the lane, forcing the Waymo truck and trailer off the roadway. She was later taken to hospital with injuries that Waymo described in its report to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as “moderate”. The other truck drove off without stopping.
While Waymo’s self-driving tractor-trailer was not responsible for the hit-and-run, the incident highlights gaps in reporting mechanisms and raises questions about how prepared the public and law enforcement should be. against heavy and fast vehicles that do not have a human driver.
The stakes for the self-driving trucking industry, which is still in its infancy, couldn’t be higher. An accident, even if the company is not at fault, could tarnish the public’s image of the technology.
The Origins of Waymo Trucking
Waymo began testing its driverless technology with tractor-trailers in 2017, starting in California and Arizona. At the time, it was in the middle of a epic legal battle with Uber on technology that was allegedly taken from Waymo by engineer Anthony Levandowski and then bought by Uber as part of self-driving truck startup Otto.
Waymo’s self-driving trucks, part of a delivery and logistics division the company calls Waymo Via, rely on technologies similar to its robotaxis: a suite of sensors, including cameras, radars and lidars , and powerful on-board computers. All have trained truckers — known as self-sufficient specialists — in the driver’s seat.
In 2018, Waymo began transporting freight in Georgia and marked its delivery business Via Waymo in 2020. It then expanded into New Mexico and Texas, and signed deals with logistics companies like JB Hunt, UPS, and CH Robinson. Earlier this month, he pledged to long-term strategic partnership with Uber and announced a pilot delivery program with online home goods retailer Wayfair.
This pilot is scheduled to begin in July on the same stretch of I-45 where the May crash occurred.
Inside the accident
Using local police and Department of Transportation reports, and data provided by Waymo to NHTSATechCrunch has attempted to piece together the worst self-driving truck accident on US roads to date.
According to Waymo, the Peterbilt 579 truck was not carrying freight for any customers or partners; it was performing “standard” tests with a weighted load.
At the wheel was a 40-year-old autonomous specialist with a decade of experience driving trucks; there was also a software operator on board. Like many Waymo vehicle workers, both were actually employed by Transdeva multinational transport and mobility company.
Although the ultimate goal of automated trucks is to eliminate, or at least drastically reduce, personnel costs, self-driving truck startups today operate with a safety driver and an engineer or technician on board.
Waymo reported that his truck was traveling in autonomous mode at 62 miles per hour, slightly below the speed limit, when the other truck pulled into his lane and forced him off the road.
Waymo told TechCrunch that the security operator did not take control of the truck from its autonomous system.
“Technology was not a factor as this collision was caused by a human driver of another vehicle when it crossed the lane line and collided with the cab of Waymo’s vehicle and continued drive,” spokeswoman Katherine Barna wrote in an email.
Ennis PD photos, obtained under public records laws, show the Waymo truck and trailer at the side of the highway. They appear to have been prevented from sliding down a parallel suburban road by a guardrail. An Ennis police officer noted that the truck itself suffered only minor damage: A photo shows damage to the truck’s lidar laser ranging sensor.
The driver, however, was taken to a nearby hospital with unspecified moderate injuries. The officer present characterized the incident as a hit and run. Waymo told TechCrunch it understands the driver is fine following his injury. The driver did not respond to a TechCrunch request for comment.
Because the system was active for at least some of the 30 seconds before the crash, Waymo had to report it to NHTSA, to comply with agency guidelines. Standing General Order on Accident Reporting for automated vehicles.
There are no check boxes on a Texas Department of Transportation accident report to record whether the vehicles involved are operating with full or partial automation, and this information was not recorded in the narrative section of the report of accident Waymo.
Ennis PD Detective Paul Asby, who later investigated the incident, told TechCrunch he was unaware the truck was operating autonomously at the time of the collision.
At the hospital, the Waymo driver told police the getaway vehicle belonged to Helwig Trucking, a local haulier with about 15 trucks. (Waymo also confirmed that the truck’s cameras captured enough detail to identify the other vehicle.) Helwig did not respond to a request for comment.
The driver left her phone number with the police and was released from hospital, and the Waymo truck was towed away. Detective Asby was assigned to the case and quickly established that the crash was driver Helwig’s fault. He contacted the company to get his side of the story and his insurance details. But when it comes to Waymo, Asby has encountered a wall of silence.
“I was going to speak to the driver because she was taken to hospital but I tried to contact her cell phone and he says it’s not a valid number,” he said. “The same for the passenger who was there with her.”
Subsequent calls to Waymo itself went unanswered. “They never returned my calls. I deactivated the record, but the insurance information is there if they want it,” he says. “Maybe they are so rich they don’t care.”
Waymo told TechCrunch that he was not aware of any attempt by Ennis PD to contact him for information and did not need to contact the department himself.
How are you
Ennis’ accident isn’t the only one involving a Waymo tractor-trailer. In February, a similar Waymo Peterbilt 579 traveling southbound on Interstate 10 near Sacaton, Arizona was struck by a van truck traveling in the adjacent lane that had also just struck a motor coach. The Waymo vehicle was traveling at 50mph in a 75mph limit zone. TechCrunch was not immediately able to find a police report detailing the crash; no injuries were reported.
If Waymo hadn’t been required to report the crashes to NHTSA, it’s possible they never came to light. Official accident reports collected by Texas, which has hosted several self-driving truck operations on its highways, appear insufficient to fully record incidents involving driverless vehicles. Local law enforcement has historically been ill-equipped to handle driving systems instead of driving humans.
Waymo is trying to fill those gaps, Barna says. “Waymo designed the Waymo Pilot to interact with first responders; and worked closely with public safety officials to ensure the safe introduction of our technology in all markets in which we operate,” she told TechCrunch. “We have a team with decades of law enforcement experience that has provided training to hundreds of officers and firefighters in California, Arizona and Texas, detailing best practices for safe interactions with Waymo vehicles.”
“We have a mountain of work to do to integrate these things into society,” said Steve Viscellisociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies trucking and advises Aurora’s self-driving truck effort. “We need to talk a lot more about what they mean for supply chains, for workers and for the highway. There are a lot of people who are going to do stupid, aggressive stuff around because they don’t like self-driving vehicles.
Waymo told the US Department of Transportation it has 47 trucks, which have traveled more than 1.6 million miles. It would not disclose to TechCrunch how many of those miles were driven under some level of automated control.
Automated trucking companies have “mastered the basics of driving,” Viscelli says. “That’s what happens with the family on vacation and the tire is flat, or when there is work that changes the shape of the road, or debris on the motorway. It’s when you have confidence in these issues that will determine when they hit the road. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see driverless trucks on the tracks next year.