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Waymo AVs Recalled After Hitting Same Truck Two Separate Times Within Minutes

There's comic timing and then there's this.
Waymo Chrysler and Jaguar AVs
Waymo

Google-backed driverless taxi firm Waymo has recalled software across its entire fleet following an unusual pair of crashes in December. Two of its vehicles managed to hit the same truck just minutes apart, in different locations. While the circumstances aren’t as damning as they sound and Waymo handled the incident responsibly, the news couldn’t come at a worse time for the increasingly scrutinized autonomous vehicle industry.

Waymo announced Tuesday on its blog that it had voluntarily filed a recall notice with the NHTSA in response to incidents that occurred in Phoenix, Arizona on December 11, 2023. The company says one of its vehicles encountered a tow truck improperly pulling a pickup, which was facing rearward and askew across a center turn lane and regular traffic lane. The Waymo AV misinterpreted the conjoined vehicles’ direction of travel and hit the pickup, taking minor damage, though the tow truck reportedly fled the scene.

Jaguar I-Pace Waymo AV at an intersection
Jaguar I-Pace Waymo AV at an intersection. Waymo

In what can only be considered cosmic comic timing though, a second Waymo met the tow truck just minutes later. Waymo says the second AV “made contact with the same pickup truck while it was being towed in the same manner.” The company says neither AV was occupied, that the vehicles involved sustained only minor damage, and that no injuries were inflicted. It adds that it informed the Phoenix Police Department and Arizona Department of Public Safety the same day, then the NHTSA on December 15. Waymo has since rolled out a recall update to address the scenario that caused the crashes, and its entire fleet has been running the software since January 12.

The company’s transparency and response stand in contrast the way similar automated driving crashes have been handled at rivals Cruise and Tesla. Cruise initially withheld evidence after one of its vehicles dragged a pedestrian down the road, leading to revocation of the company’s driverless operations permit. Tesla meanwhile rolled out a massive recall update after fighting the NHTSA for years over lax driver monitoring, which played a role in 11 crashes between Teslas on Autopilot or Full Self-Driving and stationary emergency vehicles. Of course, it’s still no good that Waymos were responsible for crashes, even if the responsibility can arguably be split.

Waymo AV sensor suite
Waymo AV sensor suite. Waymo

But again, this incident reaffirms how much more difficult vehicular autonomy is in practice than on paper, and shows why backlash to the tech’s shortcomings is rapidly escalating. The American public is increasingly skeptical of claimed self-driving tech, particularly of Tesla’s, while locals in AV testing hotbed San Francisco are sabotaging driverless cars. The most extreme incident so far occurred Saturday when locals torched a Waymo, destroying it.

As minor as Waymo’s Phoenix crashes may have been, they come at an inopportune time for the industry as a while—an industry that at least some Americans would be glad to see burn to the ground.

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