March 25, 2018 12:49 am
LAS VEGAS—The head of Google-parent Alphabet Inc.’s self-driving car unit said he is confident its technology would be able to spot someone crossing the street, avoiding an accident such as the one in which an Uber Technologies Inc. self-driving car struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona.
Waymo Chief Executive John Krafcik, speaking at the National Automobile Dealers Association Show, said the March 18 Uber accident struck a chord with him because the “car had technology representing the self-driving space.”
Police in Tempe, Ariz., said the Uber vehicle was in autonomous mode with a human safety operator at the wheel when it hit 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg while she was walking her bicycle outside of a crosswalk. The woman later died from her injuries.
In comparison to Uber’s technology, Mr. Krafcik said he has “a lot of confidence” that Waymo’s self-driving system “would be robust and able to handle situations like that,” noting that self-driving vehicles with Waymo technology have driven more than 5 million miles on public roadways.
Asked to comment on Mr. Krafcik’s remarks, the first from Waymo since the accident, Uber said “safety is our primary concern every step of the way.” The company added that it is”heartbroken by what happened” in Arizona and it continues to assist investigators.
Since the accident, Uber has suspended its self-driving fleet. Toyota Motor Corp. also decided to temporarily suspend testing self-driving vehicles on public roadways, although other auto and technology companies don’t appear to be following suit.
Waymo and Uber are in a heated battle to develop and deploy self-driving technologies. They and other tech and car companies that are racing to roll out autonomous vehicles contend the technology will ultimately save thousands of lives by eliminating human error.
Last month, Uber agreed to settle a lawsuit with Waymo over claims that Uber stole and inappropriately used trade secrets for self-driving vehicles. As part of the agreement, Uber promised not to use Waymo technology in its self-driving cars and to ensure no Waymo components were already in use. Uber also gave Waymo equity in the company.
The legal fight revolved around Uber’s $680 million acquisition in 2016 of autonomous-truck company Otto, founded by Anthony Levandowski, a former star engineer at Alphabet’s Google unit.
The self-driving car division of Google took a historic step forward in October when it began testing vehicles on public roadways in the Phoenix metro area with employees in the back seat, not at the wheel.
Write to Adrienne Roberts at Adrienne.Roberts@wsj.com
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