Waymo reconstructs real-life crashes, eliminates most of them in simulation

Tech company Waymo has provided a glimpse of how self-driving systems could one day dramatically reduce road carnage.

In a first-of-its-kind analysis, the company reconstructed real-life fatal crashes that occurred over a decadelong period in and around its Chandler, Ariz., operating area.

When Waymo replaced human drivers with autonomous systems and simulated the crashes, it found its system avoided collisions in 84 of 91 scenarios studied. Further, Waymo’s system mitigated the severity of crashes in four of the remaining incidents.

Of the three incidents in which no change occurred, all were instances in which the Waymo vehicle was struck from behind.

“This is an important step forward, because they’ve been able to do a very careful comparison on specific fatal crashes that occurred within the same area where they’re doing vehicle operations,” said Steve Shladover, research engineer at the California Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology, an R&D program at the University of California-Berkeley. “That makes for a nice, direct comparison with their automated system.”

Self-driving vehicles hold the promise of delivering a safer future; findings from the Google offshoot underscore that potential with newfound specificity.

They arrive one week after the National Safety Council warned that its preliminary estimates showed as many as 42,060 people died on American roads last year, an 8 percent total increase over 2019 despite an overall reduction in travel stemming from the pandemic.

Though the number is only an estimate, the nonprofit safety organization said the accuracy of its estimates has historically been within 1 percent of the eventual final figures compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics.

In 2019, 36,096 people were killed in traffic crashes, according to NHTSA.

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