Waymo had to rescue an autonomous van that was confused by safety cones

The twist is that the car ran away from help.

Caitlin O'Hara / Reuters

Programming a computer to understand and navigate roads designed for human drivers is hard. Just ask Elon Musk. Rarely, however, do we get to see just how many things can go wrong when an autonomous vehicle encounters a situation it doesn't know how to tackle. A 35-minute video from Joel Johnson (via Autoblog), a YouTuber who shares clips of his trips with Waymo One in Arizona, offers a rare glimpse into a perfect storm of errors.

About 12 minutes into the video, Johnson's car wants to turn right onto a multi-lane street. Unfortunately for Waymo Driver, the rightmost lane was closed, with construction cones marking the obstruction. After the car stalls, unsure of what to do next, a Waymo representative contacts Johnson to tell him Roadside Assistance is on the way. Before help arrives, the car suddenly moves to complete the turn, only to stop between lanes. It then makes the situation worse by backing up a few feet. "Now it's blocking the whole lane instead of half of it," Johnson says dryly of the development.

At this point in the video, a construction worker in a flatbed truck comes to collect the cones that had confused Waymo Driver. Right as support arrives, the car darts away from the situation only to encounter more cones and send out another call for help. Before a human driver can finally board the car and drive Johnson to his destination, Waymo Driver tries to dart away again.

Waymo claims employees can't remotely control a car. Instead, they can only offer Waymo Driver suggestions on how to navigate a tricky situation. After encountering an "unusual situation" (the construction cones) and asking for help from a remote specialist, the company says, "the Fleet Response team provided incorrect guidance." That's what led to the situation escalating in the way it did.

"While the situation was not ideal, the Waymo Driver operated the vehicle safely until Roadside Assistance arrived," the company said in a statement to Johnson. "Throughout, Waymo's team was in touch with the rider, who provided thoughtful and helpful feedback that allows us to continue learning and improving the Waymo Driver." If there's a silver lining to the episode, it's that Johnson got a free ride (and an entertaining video) out of it. Waymo, meanwhile, says it's already studied what happened to improve "our operational process."