Waymo's robotaxis under investigation after crashes and traffic mishaps

Waymo's autonomous vehicle software is under investigation after federal regulators received 22 reports of the robotaxis crashing or potentially violating traffic safety laws by driving in the wrong lane or into construction zones.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) says the probe is intended to evaluate the software and its ability to avoid collisions with stationary objects, and how well it detects and responds to "traffic safety control devices" like cones. The investigation is designated as a “preliminary evaluation,” which the ODI tries to resolve within eight months.

"NHTSA plays a very important role in road safety and we will continue to work with them as part of our mission to become the world’s most trusted driver," Waymo said in a statement to TechCrunch.

It's the second investigation into autonomous vehicles that ODI has publicly announced in the last two days. On Monday, ODI opened a probe into Amazon-backed Zoox's AVs after receiving two reports of the company's autonomous-equipped Toyota Highlanders being rear-ended by motorcycles after the SUVs unexpectedly triggered the brakes.

The investigation into Waymo's software also comes just three months after Waymo issued its first-ever recall of its autonomous software, after two of its vehicles crashed into the same towed pickup truck in Phoenix, Arizona.

The company's robotaxis have had enough trouble with construction sites that videos of these mishaps have regularly gone viral. Some of these are cited in ODI's report, like when one of Waymo's robotaxis drove off a paved roadway into a construction zone in Phoenix last October and sustained underbody damage.

There are more typical fender-benders cited, too. In San Francisco, California last year, one of Waymo's AVs was waiting to merge into traffic when it decided to re-route. As a result, one of its exterior sensors clipped an SUV. In a May incident in San Francisco, a Waymo AV ran into the bumper of a parked car while trying to execute a "pullover maneuver."

Many of the crashes cited in ODI's report, though, tend to cite more mundane encounters.

There are multiple examples where Waymo's robotaxis had trouble navigating automatic gates at parking complexes. At times, Waymo's AVs crashed into the gates. In a February incident in Arizona, the Waymo AV encountered a closed gate and, when turning to leave the area, backed into parking spikes and popped its tire. In another from November, a Waymo AV crashed into a chain separating part of a parking lot.

While these aren't life-and-death scenarios, they help illustrate the hard -- and hard-to-predict -- corner cases that stand in the way of truly autonomous vehicles.