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Waymo self-driving cars can now respond to traffic cops' hand signals

A demonstration shows a Waymo car handling a broken traffic light with ease.

Waymo Castle Test
Traffic lights out? Not a problem for Waymo's cars.

Skeptics of self-driving cars like to ask how the vehicles' automated software will handle unexpected, unusual situations. For instance, what if a traffic light at a major intersection is out and drivers need to follow signals from a police officer? Well, Waymo on Wednesday released a video showing that such an edge case is no problem at all for its autonomous vehicles.

In the video clip, which has been sped up to show the interaction more rapidly, one of Waymo's vehicles detects the intersection and stops at it, even though the traffic lights aren't functioning. The car's software detects a traffic officer -- the yellow shape highlighted in the machine-vision view -- and waits until the officer gestures for traffic to continue ahead. Click here to watch the full video clip.

Waymo's software recognized and waited for the police officer, shown as a yellow box.


It's an impressive demonstration of the ability of Waymo's software to interpret human gestures. Waymo previously said, in a blog post from 2016, that its cars' sensors and software can "read" and react to hang signals made by cyclists, such as for turning or stopping.

One thing in Waymo's favor is the fact that is vehicles have covered a huge number of miles in recent years, all of which allows the company to continue developing its software. The most recent report from Waymo says the company's self-driving cars racked up a combined 1.26 million miles in 2018. 

More impressive still, the vehicles are proving to be able to go farther between disengagements -- situations where the computers cede control to a human safety driver. Waymo reported just 0.09 disengagements per 1,000 miles driven, a lower number than any of its rivals, and equal to a distance of over 11,000 miles driven between each disengagement.