The Everlasting Autonomous Gobstopper

Citizens going medieval on autonomous test vehicles, and Waymo turns the other cheek

Brian W. Budzynski / February 01, 2019
Brian W. Budzynski

Corporations protect their investments. Seems obvious, doesn’t it?

In fact, it seems­—to me at least—so obvious that my default attitude toward any corporation is one of suspicion. To wit: I do not believe there is a company in the world with my human interest at the fore of its mission or operations, regardless of how it chooses to brand itself. So color me confused to have learned, in a Dec. 31, 2018, article run in The New York Times, that Waymo, the driverless vehicle spinoff of Google, has repeatedly chosen not to prosecute individuals in the state of Arizona who have assaulted or otherwise interfered with the AV test vehicles the company has had out on state roads for the past two years.

At first blush, it seems that the obvious choice would be to diligently prosecute those people who have attacked the test vehicles (all of whom have a human emergency backup driver) with, among other things, knives, rocks, unprintable language, their bodies and their own vehicles. After all, Waymo has millions upon millions invested in driverless development. This is a massive experiment, which already has logged 25,000+ miles on Arizona roadways, and is intended to thrust driverless vehicles into the mainstream far sooner than most folks likely realize. And, not for nothing, but the backup drivers are being put in very real danger—e.g., the time one got a .22-caliber revolver waved in his face.

Why would Waymo choose not to respond through legal channels as a means to, if nothing else, demonstrate precisely what it is prepared to do in order to defend its investment (and the human backup drivers, of course, of course)?

According to the NYT article, Waymo has been, in most of these cases, unwilling to share any video or captured data with authorities, despite multiple requests. In only one instance has there been an exception—an incident in June of last year where the driver of a Chrysler PT Cruiser deliberately wove between lanes of traffic to harass and impede a Waymo van. According to the article: “A manager at Waymo showed video images of the incident to [an officer] but did not allow the police to keep them for a more thorough investigation. According to [his] report, the manager said that the company did not want to pursue the matter, emphasizing that Waymo was worried about disruptions of its testing in Chandler.”

And there it is.

“Safety is the core of everything we do,” said a Waymo spokesperson. Oh sure. But the core within that core, like the impossible center of an Everlasting Gobstopper, is the drive to protect its investment.

There is nothing more important than to continue to rack up those miles, to produce reams of data, to have these vehicles see and be seen out on the road—nothing, not even their emergency backup drivers literally being asked to knowingly make human targets of themselves in a way that few, if any, ordinary drivers can possibly imagine or would be willing to tolerate. I mean, imagine getting in the car every morning to go to work knowing that it was going to be Fury Road just to make it to the office.

One P.O.’d citizen was quoted as saying, “They said they need real-world examples, but I don’t want to be their real-world mistake,” while another offered, “They didn’t ask us if we wanted to be part of their beta test.” It’s understandable, the anger; the physical reaction to it, not so much, but it is decidedly human.

“People are lashing out justifiably,” said Douglas Rushkoff, a media theorist at City University of New York and author of the book, “Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus.” He has compared AVs to robotic incarnations of scabs—workers who refuse to go on strike or who take the place of those on strike. He went on to say, “There’s a growing sense that the giant corporations honing driverless technologies do not have our best interests at heart. Just think about the humans inside these vehicles . . . ”

That’s right, sir. If only Waymo would.

About the Author

Budzynski is managing editor of Traffic & Transit.

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