Waymo recalls and updates robotaxi software after two cars crashed into the same towed truck

Waymo is voluntarily recalling the software that powers its robotaxi fleet after two vehicles crashed into the same towed pickup truck in Phoenix, Arizona, in December. It's the company's first recall.

Waymo chief safety officer Mauricio Peña described the crashes as "minor" in a blog post, and said neither vehicle was carrying passengers at the time. There were no injuries. He also said Waymo's ride-hailing service -- which is live in Phoenix, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Austin -- "is not and has not been interrupted by this update." The company declined to share video of the crashes with TechCrunch.

Waymo said it developed, tested, and validated a fix to the software that it started deploying to its fleet on December 20. All of its robotaxis received that software update by January 12.

"This voluntary recall reflects how seriously we take our responsibility to safely deploy our technology and to transparently communicate with the public," Peña wrote.

The recall comes at a time when self-driving cars are facing intense scrutiny following a series of high-profile crashes and controversies -- including one last week where a Waymo robotaxi struck a cyclist. This past weekend, a Waymo autonomous vehicle was vandalized and burned by a crowd of people in San Francisco. Rival operator Cruise, meanwhile, has suspended its operations as it deals with the fallout of a crash from last October. It hired its first chief safety officer this week.

The crashes that prompted the recall both happened on December 11. Peña wrote that one of Waymo's vehicles came upon a backward-facing pickup truck being "improperly towed." The truck was "persistently angled across a center turn lane and a traffic lane." Peña said the robotaxi "incorrectly predicted the future motion of the towed vehicle" because of this mismatch between the orientation of the tow truck and the pickup, and made contact. The company told TechCrunch this caused minor damage to the front left bumper.

The tow truck did not stop, though, according to Peña, and just a few minutes later another Waymo robotaxi made contact with the same pickup truck being towed. The company told TechCrunch this caused minor damage to the front left bumper and a sensor. (The tow truck stopped after the second crash.)

Waymo said it contacted the Phoenix Police Department and the Arizona Department of Public Safety on the day of the crashes, and told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about them on December 15. The company and NHTSA staff have had "four subsequent conversations" about the crashes, before Waymo decided to voluntarily recall the software that was in use at the time.

The recall could increase public pressure on Waymo, as cities, citizens and government agencies are scrutinizing the promise of autonomous vehicle fleets. Robotaxis are already facing pushback in Los Angeles, including from the Teamsters union. The California Department of Motor Vehicles is already investigating Waymo's aforementioned crash with a cyclist. And the Department of Justice and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, among others, are probing Cruise's handling of its October crash.