Waymo Self-Driving Vehicles Keep Going Down the Same Dead-End San Francisco Block

The company says the cars are following the rules of the road.
Image: Waymo
Screen Shot 2021-02-24 at 3
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A procession of Waymo vehicles, the self-driving car company operated by Google parent Alphabet, keep turning around on the same dead-end block in San Francisco, resulting in curious neighbors wondering what is going on with the supposedly advanced technology.

The block in question is 15th Avenue north of Lake Street, just south of the Presidio. The three-point-turn-athon, which was first reported by CBS5, is a typically quiet block in a quiet neighborhood, more than two blocks from any kind of commercial area. But in recent weeks, Waymo vehicles regularly come down the block, turn around, and then leave. CBS5 said it happens as often as every five minutes. 


Neighbors interviewed by CBS5 seem more puzzled than perturbed. One said the increased vehicle traffic is "a little peculiar" while another said "I don’t really have a preference either way, but it is a little bit odd that they’re over here so much."

But Nick Smith, a Waymo spokesperson, told Motherboard there's actually no problem or bug here to be fixed. The constant U-turning is a function of Lake Street being a Slow Street—limiting through traffic and making roads shared space with cars, pedestrians, and cyclists—which Waymos cannot travel down. "In this case, cars traveling North of California [one block south of Lake] on 15th Ave have to take a u-turn due to the presence of Slow Streets signage on Lake," Smith explained, "So, the Waymo Driver was obeying the same road rules that any car is required to follow."

Motherboard also asked Waymo why there are so many of the damn things making U-turns on this one specific block. Smith said, “The number of trips on this street has increased over time as we increase testing across the city, but the relative number of trips hasn’t increased at all as compared to other trips in the neighborhood.” Back on August 24, the company announced a big expansion in the city, including the geographic area encompassing 15th and Lake. This timeline matches residents' description of when the problem started to become noticeable. Smith added that it may seem like there are more Waymos than there are because there are so few other vehicles doing the same thing.

As for why that block specifically is so highly trafficked by Waymos, it seemed likely to me the cars are trying to get to Park Presidio Boulevard, just a block and a half east of 15th, and plans to take Lake to get there before realizing it can't and so has to double back to California. 

But Smith said that’s not the case. “Driving all different types of streets and neighborhoods in San Francisco help us to learn and advance the Waymo Driver. We had previously identified this street as an area we wanted to drive and learn from. Independent of Slow Streets we would have traveled on that street and directly exited, but due to the Slow Street, the only way to exit is through the u-turn at the end of the block.”

Overall, the incident is yet another reminder that self-driving car companies are doing two things that many might not consider desirable. Across a mix of companies, they're flooding streets with hundreds and even thousands of vehicles nobody asked for, and within any given company, they're all using the same software, meaning the one "driver's" behavior impacts every vehicle. In this case, if the "driver" doesn't learn quickly to take the right on California to get to Park Presidio Boulevard, it means some random block in San Francisco is getting a lot of new visitors.