back to article Bored 'drivers' pushed Google Waymo into ditching autopilot tech

Google binned its self-driving cars' "take over now, human!" feature because test drivers kept dozing off behind the wheel instead of watching the road, according to reports. "What we found was pretty scary," Google Waymo's boss John Krafcik told Reuters reporters during a recent media tour of a Waymo testing facility. "It's …

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  1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

    Not new

    This isn't new. The airline industry has the same problem. When the autopilot switches off due to a problem, the pilots have no idea what's going on and make bad decisions.

    1. steelpillow Silver badge

      Re: Not new

      Interesting comparison. Planes and motor vehicles are the same but different. Pilots flying manually for eight hours get bored, copilot or no, and make mistakes, so the autopilot turns out the lesser of two evils. Driving on a near-empty motorway might turn out the same, but in even vaguely busy traffic there is just too much going on to let the human's attention wander. Automatic transmissions and handsfree phones already do enough damage, it seems we can't afford to let auto-bots make that worse.

      1. Trigonoceps occipitalis

        Re: Not new

        My car has the lowest level of auto-pilot, a cruise control that simply makes progress at a fixed speed. The problem is not that I do not pay attention, at least not deliberately, but that I have to steel myself to switch it off. In lines of moving traffic I would get too close to the car in front waiting for the gap that I thought would appear on the offside to overtake.

        I'm better with a little more experience and don't use it in heavy traffic conditions - hey, it was new. Given that I would add to the problem of inattentive drivers suddenly being asked to takeover the fact that, given that they will have less experience, they will not recognise there is a problem even when the big fucking klaxon goes off.

        1. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: Not new

          "a cruise control that simply makes progress at a fixed speed"

          I achieved the same thing on my motorcycle in the 80s with a clamp on the throttle.

          Fixed speed cruise control is only useful on empty roads. Once you've used an adaptive cruise system you'll never use the old type again (and the one on my car is 15 years old, so not exactly new tech)

    2. DougS Silver badge

      MUCH less of a problem on airplanes

      There isn't anything to hit up in the sky, and if there is it is seen with radar from miles away giving the pilot far more time to react than a driver would have when an emergency situation happens on the road. Say the car in front of you and one lane over blows a tire and swerves right at you, you may not react in time even if you are paying full attention, if the car tells you to take over you won't have even had time to take in what is going on before it has hit you and you're at the mercy of physics.

      1. Magani
        Headmaster

        Re: MUCH less of a problem on airplanes

        @DougS

        There isn't anything to hit up in the sky, and if there is it is seen with radar from miles away giving the pilot far more time to react..."

        If there wasn't anything to hit up there, there'd be no need for Air Traffic Control. Trust me, there's a lot to hit, but because of the speeds, it's all seems far apart until it gets VERY close very quickly. Also, aircraft radar is only interested in weather, not looking for other aircraft. That's the job of TCAS (Traffic Collision and Avoidance System).

        I do, however, agree WRT the split second your average car driver has to recognise a developing emergency on the road ahead. Some unfortunately, never get time to react.

        1. DougS Silver badge

          Re: MUCH less of a problem on airplanes

          99.99% of air traffic control's job is dealing with congestion around airports for planes arriving and departing, where autopilot isn't really needed. Even without air traffic control or radar, or even windows on the plane, the odds of two airplanes colliding in flight would be quite small. Heck, there is no air traffic control over the oceans, but I don't recall ever hearing about a collision over the Atlantic or Pacific.

          1. Magani
            WTF?

            Re: MUCH less of a problem on airplanes

            @DougS

            Heck, there is no air traffic control over the oceans,...

            In that case, I spent 3 years of my air traffic control career being paid to do nothing. I wonder what the Oceanic rating in my ATC licence was good for?

            I suggest you look up Shanwick or Nadi or AirServices Australia and Oceanic control for a fuller version of ATC over the oceans.

      2. MonkeyCee Silver badge

        Re: MUCH less of a problem on airplanes

        "There isn't anything to hit up in the sky, and if there is it is seen with radar from miles away giving the pilot far more time to react than a driver would have when an emergency situation happens on the road. "

        I'll leave out any comment on managing air-to-air collisions, the main thing that aircraft fatally collide with is the ground. There's the issue that flying a plane in many conditions requires relying on your sensors, and making allowances when those sensors get fouled up. Which is pretty hard to do for a computer, hence why we have trained meatbags.

        In the example of Air France 447, it took 4 minutes from the pitot tube freezing up (which meant airspeed was not able to be measured correctly) for the pilots to take the aircraft to it's maximum operating height, stall, and then into the ground.

        It's not even clear that the pilots realised that they where descending rather than flying level, or even if they realised that the aircraft had switched over to alternate law (flight control computer doesn't have enough information to exercise control) rather than normal law.

        1. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: MUCH less of a problem on airplanes

          "hence why we have trained meatbags"

          Some are trained better than others.

          "It's not even clear that the pilots realised that they where descending rather than flying level"

          They probably didn't. If you panic and start flying by the seat of your pants without external references, you _will_ go splat. Our balance system is very stable and sensitive but it's programmed at all times on the basis of the monkey enveloping it being generally attached to something solid and unmoving. One pilot told me a tale of how he was flying VFR when clouds got in the way. He pressed on regardless and at one point was looking _up_ at the ground.

          The AF pilots fucked up badly, but so did Airbus by assuming "Pilots would never do that" and not making allowances for the times when they might.

          One of the parts that's always amazed me when reading incident reports involving pitot icing is that it's not particularly difficult to detect the onset and apply heating automatically (or to simply use a thermostat). Insistence on having pilots do mundane and easily forgotten shit manually in a mostly automated system (or a heavily loaded manual environment) is a recipe for mistakes (there's also the issue of having multiple pitots and only relying on one of them for input instead of using redundancy

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Looking like mixed tech isn't an option ...

    wasn't there a bit of a bunfight between driverless cars that had controls, and ones which didn't ?

    Looks like studies like this are deciding the outcome.

    1. Adam 52 Silver badge

      Re: Looking like mixed tech isn't an option ...

      This wasn't a study, it was a remark made by a manager at a press junket.

    2. ThomH Silver badge

      Re: Looking like mixed tech isn't an option ...

      Mixed tech definitely has a place, but in much the way it is actually being implemented in production models: to warn the driver if what they're doing is dangerous, and possibly even to override the driver if what they're doing is egregious. Lane assistance is probably already doing the world a statistically-significant benefit and extending that line of logic to, say, a hypothetical car that would seek automatically to pull over if the driver became unresponsive feels like a good thing.

      Offering to take over driving but only in spates and with the handover points being unforeseeable and only immediately before a crisis does indeed feel extremely foolish.

      1. Richard Jones 1
        FAIL

        Re: Looking like mixed tech isn't an option ...

        Lane change warningis a real pain when roads are poorly maintained and the system picks up on every thing it sees and thinks it sees a lane change. Its constant squawking will earn it a cut buzzer one day.

    3. DougS Silver badge

      Re: Looking like mixed tech isn't an option ...

      You will still need a steering wheel in your shiny new autonomous car, because there's no way autonomous cars will be able to handle all roads and all conditions from day one. You might have it drive on expressways and take over when it reaches your exit, or it can toodle around town in a smaller city with light traffic but in the kind of traffic and complex situations you see in central Manhattan or London it needs you to drive.

      It will take over a decade from the first fully autonomous car sold to where it will be possible to have a car without any controls at all. Forget all the weird driving situations you might run into on the road, what if I want to drive a truck over the curb, across my sidewalk and front lawn, around the side of my house and pull up around my back deck so I don't have to carry my new grill so far?

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Are these clever people so thick?

    So they expected someone with nothing to do, to be fully engaged with their environment that they have nothing to do with, just in case they *may* need to do something every now and again?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Are these clever people so thick?

      Yes, they are!

    2. Snowy
      Holmes

      Re: Are these clever people so thick?

      Indeed if you have to be fully engaged and ready to take over at a moments notice you may aswell be driving it!

  4. Dave 126 Silver badge

    WipEout

    The raving* video game could have taught them that twenty years ago. One of the power ups in the game was a 5 second autopilot. Even if you kept your full attention on the game, the transition from autopilot back to your control was always nerve wracking.

    *I meant racing video game, but anybody who remembers the soundtrack will know why I left this false autocorrect in.

    1. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: WipEout

      Some shoot-em ups restart from pause with a slo-mo wind up to full speed to get you back into the game.

      I'm guessing a time distort device would bump the price up a bit?

      1. Mephistro Silver badge
        Coat

        Re: WipEout

        Yes, but it would pay for itself quickly, with the interests.

        1. TRT Silver badge

          Re: WipEout

          Unless you get hijacked by Thargoids whilst in witch-space.

  5. Ralph the Wonder Llama
    Facepalm

    Well, that's a relief

    "Google decided that its human-invention system was unsafe"

    See title.

    1. TRT Silver badge

      Re: Well, that's a relief

      Google you say...

      "Attention driver, attention driver. BEEP BEEP BEEP. Attention. ... Have you been mis-sold payment protection insurance?"

  6. wolfetone Silver badge

    "What we found was pretty scary,"

    What else were you actually expecting? For them to stay awake and pay attention like they were driving the car? Idiot.

  7. 0laf Silver badge
    Childcatcher

    Funny that. Try to make a person watch a video of a normal uneventful drive and see how long they can pay attention to the road for.

    Bloody hell it's hard enough for some people to pay attention when they are driving.

    1. ma1010 Silver badge
      Pint

      So true!

      Bloody hell it's hard enough for some people to pay attention when they are driving.

      Have an upvote and a virtual pint on me ==================>

    2. Muscleguy Silver badge
      Boffin

      This week's New Scientist makes the point that acting automatically, that realisation you have just driven 5miles and don't remember it, is actually safer and more efficient than paying 'full attention'. Like thinking about how you are going to hit a tennis return instead of what you want the ball to do. Or paying too much attention when touch typing.

      I learned to touch type at school in NZ in about 1979 using big old manual typewriters. I learned if I thought about what my fingers were doing instead of just noting the sequence of letters I was slower and made more mistakes.

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        I have an odd psychological response:

        If I'm in a vehicle for any length of time - plane, train, or car - and I'm not driving... I go to sleep. I seem to have no control over this reflex.

        I don't have any issue if I'm behind the wheel, but if I'm not in charge then it's as if I'm hypnotised. I'd hate for that to happen on the driver's side of the car, with a robot telling me 'wake up and take control, meatsack... oh. Oh well.'

        1. Triggerfish

          Re: I have an odd psychological response:

          I do exactly the same thing, I have to fight to stay awake on car journeys as a passenger. I have been asleep within minutes of being in a vehicle, turns out I am the same on boats to.

      2. Kiwi
        Thumb Up

        I learned to touch type at school in NZ in about 1979 using big old manual typewriters. I learned if I thought about what my fingers were doing instead of just noting the sequence of letters I was slower and made more mistakes.

        Is it just me or are we over-represented here on El Reg?

        Anyway.. Is the same thing I was taught with advanced MC riding (and same applies to cars!) - to practice all your controls expecially emergency braking. Find a safe place, throw your vehicle around a bit, learn how it handles with hard braking, trying to turn while braking (often ill-advised but sometimes it's the difference between sliding sideways into a truck and running under the deck of said truck).

        Then, if a bad situation comes up, you get to focus on thinking what you want your vehicle to do, not how to do it. And you may be amazed at how a POS that handles like a bus with 2 flat front tyres and a stuffed steering box normally can suddenly become an amazingly manoeuvrable masterpiece of handling when your life depends on it, and you've trained yourself to handle it under interesting conditions.

  8. Seajay#

    Unsurprising, and this was people who knew that they were taking part in a test of an experimental autopilot, which you would think would keep them at least slightly interested. If these had been videos from real cars you'd have seen people climbing in to the back seat to grab things out of the boot, making sandwiches, never mind the occasional x-rated stuff.

    This is old news though. Google gave a Ted talk on exactly this a couple of years ago

  9. SirWired 1

    This is not surprising in the least. I'm a big proponent of the idea that until 100% self-driving gets figured out, we can't really advance beyond adaptive cruise and lane-keep assist.

    The Virginia Tech center for transportation (or whatever they call it) routinely does driver observation studies, outfitting ordinary Americans cars' with interior and exterior cameras, radar, microphones, the works. And they use this to develop stats on things like distracted driving, use of driver aids, exactly what happened during accidents, etc.

    While they've produced a lot of useful information, the most striking point is how quickly people forget there are cameras pointing at the driver at all times. They didn't go into details, but have said that the undergrads they hire to review the footage have seen some pretty freaky things on those cameras, and even the "normal" ones routinely do some pretty unsafe things.

    1. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge

      I don't even use my cruise control settings because I don't like the delays it creates.

      1. John Robson Silver badge

        What delays does cruise control create?

        1. Adam 52 Silver badge

          Without cruise control when you take your foot off the accelerator the car starts to decelerate. With cruise control it only starts to decelerate once you press the brake pedal.

          There was a demo rig at one of the museums (science, I think) illustrating the extra distance traveled in that time.

          If you cover the brake it might reduce stopping distance, but nobody drives on cruise control with their foot hovering over a pedal.

          1. John Robson Silver badge

            “Without cruise control when you take your foot off the accelerator the car starts to decelerate. With cruise control it only starts to decelerate once you press the brake pedal.

            There was a demo rig at one of the museums (science, I think) illustrating the extra distance traveled in that time.

            If you cover the brake it might reduce stopping distance, but nobody drives on cruise control with their foot hovering over a pedal.”

            I do...

            Cruise control isn’t appropriate in most situations which might need such a sensitive response. It’s rather good on motorways (de facto or real) though. The rest of the time I use the ‘speed limiter’ feature of the CC.

            1. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge

              "It’s rather good on motorways "

              Maybe if you're usual commute is during the wee hours, but in my experience the rest of the time it's pretty choppy.

              1. John Robson Silver badge

                >"It’s rather good on motorways "

                >Maybe if you're usual commute is during the wee hours, but in my experience the rest of the time it's pretty choppy.

                I don't commute on motorways, but actually that's where the next level CC comes in really handy. Set 70 as the max speed, and let the car moderate the distance in front of you. (Note I've not had a chance to test this)

  10. Oneman2Many

    Waymo, Ford and government studies showed this months ago. Ford at least are saying they are going skip Level 3 because of this issue and going straight to level 4. Tesla, the germans and other are still talking about releasing level 3 cars,

    https://cleantechnica.com/2017/02/20/ford-skip-level-3-autonomous-cars-even-engineers-supervising-self-driving-vehicle-testing-lose-situational-awareness/

    My guess is a few crashes and level 3 will be banned or restricted to motorways or other main roads.

    1. katrinab Silver badge

      What happens when your level three car reaches the end of the motorway where it turns into an A road? Eg, reach the London end of the M4, and you get dumped into the middle of the A4 and you have a typical urban street with pedestrians, cyclists, traffic lights, crossroads, roundabouts and so on.

      1. Oneman2Many

        That is fine, you know when you are going to get to the end of the main road or slip road and have plenty of warning.

        Personally I won't give over steering control at any point and do away with level 3 all together. Driver assist like adaptive cruise is fine. But what will car manufactures push for the next 5 to 10 years till level 4 is ready ?

  11. Harry Stottle

    Attention Test Required

    as I've said elsewhere:

    in some of the software I develop I use deliberate random errors in certain dialogues, to spot humans trying to answer questions without inspection or thought.

    It occurs to me that something similar is required for the "Level 3" driverless cars (which are supposed to be able to handle almost all situations but still need close human monitoring). i.e. the software should regularly (but randomly) send false alarms to the control panel and measure the time and accuracy with which the human deals with them. If their response time exceeds a safe threshold, take the earliest opportunity to park the car and cede full control to the human (with an auto reset of, say, the next day?)

    The first time I tried this, I expected user hostility. Instead they treated it as a game and told us that it made an otherwise tedious task much more interesting and entertaining. I suspect the same could happen in the Level 3 scenario...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Attention Test Required

      Are you serious ? How much do people pay for your application ? If I would spend 50000 USD on a car I will definitely not accept to be treated like this unless of course they remove the auto reset and just allow me to drive.

      Just imagine the user is seriously impaired and your code/algorithm parks the car and invites him to drive to get home. Or that he is sick and just wants to get to a hospital.

      I know programmers have this strong belief that anything can be solved by a few lines of code but let's not be silly here.

      1. Harry Stottle

        Re: Attention Test Required

        The commentards will have moved on by now but I'll still put this on record.

        Yes I am deadly serious.

        Bit surprised at the hostility.

        Although I didn't know it when I started using this techique (2008) Google actually patented it back in 1998

        So I'm not proposing an entirely novel concept. I've since seen references to it being used in many "serious" authentication or confirmation dialogues where it is vital to be sure that the user really is awake. So it is ideally suited to the Level 3 driving scenario

        If such techniques are NOT used then (as implied by some of the other responses, and suggested by some of the developers) we should skip Level 3 and go straight to Level 4. (where the cars are certified to be able to take complete control of the vehicle for any preplalnned route)

        The problem with that is they need the experience gained in Level 3 to get to level 4. Skipping it would probably add up to 5 years to the Level 4 development schedule

        1. Seajay#

          Re: Attention Test Required

          It's a good idea but the thing is you can get away with that if you're writing code for a company to be used by employees. They know they're there to work so if you add (what seems like) a condescending we-don't-believe-you-can-pay-attention-unless-watched test then they put up with it because they want to get paid. If you're selling a product to people it's a very different relationship. If you lock them out of a feature of their car, which they have paid for because they failed your test, they are going to go nuts.

          Like I say, it's a good idea but it's just not going to fly. If that means that we go straight to level 4 and it takes a few extra years, then that's what has to happen.

          1. Kiwi
            Coat

            Re: Attention Test Required

            If you lock them out of a feature of their car, which they have paid for because they failed your test, they are going to go nuts.

            That guy who had his Tesla run under a truck? I'm sure his family would rather he could lose his nut at Tesla for such a test instead of him losing his nut under a truck..

            If the driver of a L3 car isn't paying attention, they're not able to take over in an emergency. If they're not able to take over when needed, they shouldn't be driving. If they fail and alertness test...

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Attention Test Required

      "in some of the software I develop I use deliberate random errors in certain dialogues, to spot humans trying to answer questions without inspection or thought."

      You work for Microsoft?

  12. nevstah

    surely

    if the human driver needs to be fully aware and engaged just in case, then they may as well be actually driving, it will be just as tiresome, if not more so.

    how about the autopilot pays attention for that just in case scenario? computers are really good at that! and if they gave a brief warning before doing so, there would be some opportunity for a sanity check on both sides

  13. Claptrap314 Bronze badge
    Facepalm

    I stopped using cruise control almost immediately because I recognized this. Having grown up on the farm, I had logged thousands & thousands of hours on the tractor before I was doing highway driving with a car, so I was probably more sensitive to the loss of focus.

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