Does Waymo Really Have Self-Driving Cars Ready to Go?

Andrej Sokolow/DPA via ZUMA

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The New York Times says that automakers are resetting their expectations for self-driving cars after discovering that there’s more weird behavior on the road than they anticipated:

Argo’s chief executive, Bryan Salesky, said the industry’s bigger promise of creating driverless cars that could go anywhere was “way in the future.” He and others attribute the delay to something as obvious as it is stubborn: human behavior. Researchers at Argo say the cars they are testing in Pittsburgh and Miami have to navigate unexpected situations every day. Recently, one of the company’s cars encountered a bicyclist riding the wrong way down a busy street between other vehicles. Another Argo test car came across a street sweeper that suddenly turned a giant circle in an intersection, touching all four corners and crossing lanes of traffic that had the green light.

I’ve said before that the bellwether for autonomous cars is Waymo, so what do they have to say?

Waymo operates a fleet of 600 test vehicles — the same number it had on the road a year ago….“We are able to do the driving task,” Tekedra Mawakana, Waymo’s chief external officer, said in an interview. “But the reason we don’t have a service in 50 states is that we are still validating a host of elements related to offering a service. Offering a service is very different than building a technology.

This is a fascinating quote. But what does it mean? If Waymo can “do the driving task,” does that mean they can really, genuinely, 100 percent do the driving task? And if that’s the case, why not ditch the whole taxi service idea and just sell self-driving cars to individuals? (Or lease them or whatever.) Hell, I’d be interested in a car that just did highway driving with 100 percent reliability—i.e., reliability so high that I can take a nap instead of keeping my hands on the wheel. So what’s up with that, Waymo?

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