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Yesterday, a driverless Waymo robotaxi and a bicyclist were involved in an incident in San Francisco. The crash happened around 3 P.M., and the cyclist was able to leave the scene on their own after the crash, according to a statement from Waymo.
Waymo’s entire statement about the incident is below:
“On February 6th at 17th Street and Mississippi Street in San Francisco, one of our vehicles was involved in a collision with a bicyclist. The Waymo vehicle was at a complete stop at a four-way intersection. An oncoming large truck progressed through the intersection in our direction and then at our turn to proceed, we moved into the intersection. The cyclist was occluded by the truck and quickly followed behind it, crossing into the Waymo vehicle’s path. When they became fully visible, our vehicle applied heavy braking but was not able to avoid the collision. Waymo called the police to the scene and the cyclist left on their own, to our knowledge reporting only minor scratches. We are making contact with relevant authorities surrounding this event.”
How Waymo handles cyclists on the road
Bicyclists present unique challenges for both autonomous vehicles and human drivers. They’re much smaller and more agile than other cars but can move much faster than pedestrians. According to the CDC, nearly 1,000 bicyclists die and over 130,000 are injured in crashes in the U.S. every year.
Waymo, and many other AV developers, take special care in training their systems to ensure their vehicles can safely drive alongside bicyclists. The company gave insight into their cyclist-specific training in a blog post in 2021.
Waymo works with cyclist groups, like the California Bicycle Coalition and Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, to gather feedback on what they expect from drivers. This gives the company insights to adjust its testing and validation procedures to better provide safety for cyclists.
The company says that its sensor suite, which sees 360º around the vehicle and can identify objects up to three football fields away, helps the vehicle detect bicyclists in most situations. Waymo’s system uses all of this information and the experience it has built up over time through real-world driving and simulations, to understand what’s happening around it, and anticipate what might happen next.
The Waymo Driver then uses all of this information, about what’s happening and what might happen, to plan the best action to take. Waymo says it runs extensive testing at its closed-loop tracks and in simulations to help its autonomous driver prepare for even the most extreme scenarios.
Waymo also paid particular attention to how its drivers drop off and pick up passengers. “Dooring”, an issue where cyclists are hit by a vehicle door opening, is a common issue in San Francisco. According to research conducted by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (PDF), between 2012 and 2015 there were 203 collisions due to dooring in the city. Waymo says its driver accounts for bike lanes when it picks up and drops off passengers.
AVs hit rocky roads in San Francisco
It’s been a difficult few months for the autonomous vehicle industry. In October 2023, Cruise, GM’s self driving unit and Waymo’s competitor, had its California permits revoked after California officials said Cruise withheld footage of the October 2 incident that shows Cruise’s robotaxi attempting to pull over while the pedestrian was under the vehicle. This maneuver dragged the woman for around 20 feet at a speed of 7 MPH before stopping. Cruise disputes that it withheld footage or information from the DMV, but it paused all of its operations nationwide to reestablish trust with the public.
Since then, the city of San Francisco has filed a lawsuit against the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the organization responsible for regulating autonomous vehicles in the state, to drastically reduce the number of robotaxis on the city’s roads.
The lawsuit centers around the CPUC’s decision in August 2023 to grant both Cruise and Waymo their final permits in the state. These permits allowed the companies to charge for rides, expand the hours of operation and service area, and add as many robotaxis to their fleets as they wanted. The lawsuit is asking the CPUC to reconsider its decision and whether it was compliant with the law, according to The Washington Post.
This lawsuit has the most potential impact on Waymo, as Cruise has already lost its permits. While Waymo hasn’t caused as many high-profile incidents as Cruise, San Francisco officials still have concerns about letting the company have full reign in the city.