Google ditched autopilot driving feature after test user napped behind wheel

A Chrysler Pacifica minivan equipped with Waymo’s self-driving car technology, being tested with the company’s employees as a biker and a pedestrian at Waymo’s facility in Atwater, California Waymo. (Julia Wang/Waymo via AP)
Updated 31 October 2017
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Google ditched autopilot driving feature after test user napped behind wheel

ATWATER, California: Alphabet Inc’s self-driving car unit stopped developing features that required drivers to take control in dangerous situations, its chief executive said Monday, as autopilot reliance left users prone to distractions and ill-prepared to maneuver.
The decision followed experiments of the technology in Silicon Valley that showed test users napping, putting on makeup and fiddling with their phones as the vehicles traveled up to 56 mph.
John Krafcik, the head of Waymo, which was formed in 2009 as a project within Alphabet’s Google unit, told reporters that about five years ago the company envisioned technology that could autonomously drive cars on highways as a quick way to get on the market.
Other self-driving automakers include similar autopilot features for highway-driving in vehicles, but they require drivers to take over the steering wheel in tricky situations. Waymo planned to do the same.
“What we found was pretty scary,” Krafcik said onMonday during a media tour of a Waymo testing facility. “It’s hard to take over because they have lost contextual awareness.”
Krafcik said the company determined a system that asked drivers to jump in at the sound of an alert was unsafe after seeing videos from inside self-driving cars during tests.
The filmed tests were conducted in 2013, with Google employees behind the wheel. The videos had not been publicly shown until Monday’s event, Waymo spokeswoman Lauren Barriere said.
The company decided to focus solely on technology that didn’t require human intervention a couple of days after the napping incident, said Krafcik, who joined as CEO in 2015. It has also since argued against allowing “handoffs” between automated driving systems and people.
“Our technology takes care of all of the driving, allowing passengers to stay passengers,” the company said in report this month.
The two drive controls provided to passengers in Waymo’s Chrysler Pacifica minivans are buttons for starting a ride and asking the vehicles to pull over at their next chance.
Waymo is running a ride-hailing pilot program around Phoenix, Arizona that chauffeurs an undisclosed, but growing number of users in self-driving cars. The service area is limited to well-mapped roads on which Waymo has extensively tested.
Krafcik declined to specify when the company would expand beyond the small experiment, saying only that such a moment is getting “close.”
He reiterated that the company is simultaneously also identifying ways to launch self-driving trucks, municipal transit services and partnerships with carmakers.
“We see four potential applications, whether it’s Waymo branded or not,” he said.


Drones fly to rescue of Amazon wildlife

Updated 16 August 2018
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Drones fly to rescue of Amazon wildlife

  • With the help of drones, researchers are able to watch the Amazon’s pink river dolphins in a heavily flooded Amazon reserve
  • The expedition is using new thermal imaging cameras to allow work to continue at night

MAMIRAUA RESERVE, Brazil: A hoarse sound abruptly wakes visitors staying at a floating house that serves as a base for environmentalists on the Jaraua river in the Amazon rainforest.
During flood season, the Mamiraua Sustainable Development Reserve — located 500 kilometers (310 miles) from the Amazonas state capital Manaus — fills with water.
For researchers from the Mamiraua Institute and WWF-Brazil, that means their nearest neighbor is a caiman they call Dominique. It has decided to squat for the day at the end of their house.
But the surprising noise was something else.
“Don’t worry! That’s just the river dolphins breathing. It’s scary in the middle of the night, right?” biologist Andre Coelho says.
The next day, scientists got into two boats, slowly navigating the endless spread of water-filled forest.
In this primeval landscape, the researchers used a drone to help them watch the Amazon’s pink river dolphins, whose scientific name is Inia geoffrensis.
The voyage in late June, which AFP was invited to follow, was the last in the series of a project called EcoDrones, which monitors populations of the pink river dolphin and another type, the tucuxi, or Sotalia fluviatilis.
“We need to understand their behavior and habits so that we can propose policies for their preservation,” said Marcelo Oliveira, from the World Wildlife Fund-Brazil.
Drones “are a tool that will reduce costs and speed up the investigations,” said oceanographer Miriam Marmontel, from the Mamiraua Institute.
The expedition is using new thermal imaging cameras to allow work to continue at night.
“We can observe the animals at times when before it was impossible,” Oliveira said.
Some of the research will be sent to the University of Liverpool in association with WWF-Brazil, with hopes of developing an algorithm that will allow scientists to identify every one of the dolphins during their observations.
“There are many different Amazons in what we call the Amazon jungle,” said Marmontel.
“Our monitoring means we can understand how to preserve animals in each region — what are the dangers and how they can be faced.”