Self-Driving Cars See Less Human Intervention in California

In recent months, even the people working on self-driving vehicles have started to publicly acknowledge that it's unlikely we'll stop driving by 2020. But new data from California hints that the technology is improving.

by Carolyn Said, San Francisco Chronicle / February 14, 2019
A Waymo self-driving autonomous vehicle in Tempe, Ariz., on February 3, 2018. (Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa USA/TNS) TNS

(TNS) — Waymo and Cruise, the leaders in the race to make robot cars a widespread reality, saw their vehicles improve at handling themselves on the road in 2018, according to reports that they submitted to California regulators.

The annual reports, released Wednesday by the California Department of Motor Vehicles, require companies testing autonomous vehicles on public roads in the state to declare how often humans needed to take control of the cars, an event called a disengagement. They cover Nov. 31, 2017, through Dec. 1, 2018.

The reports come as experts, consumer advocates, the driving public — and auto industry insiders — question whether robot cars will be truly viable for widespread use within a couple of years, as industry leaders have predicted.

A fatal accident caused by a self-driving Uber car in Arizona in March undermined the public’s confidence in the emerging technology. So did several fatal crashes caused by Tesla cars operating in Autopilot mode, although their drivers were relying on technology that’s not meant to replace humans. And auto industry leaders — even ones at self-driving companies — have started walking back their rosy forecasts.

Experts and the companies themselves cautioned that disengagement is just one measure of performance, while the regulations are fluid enough that companies use different standards for determining what qualifies as a disengagement.

“Sometimes it can be an error if autonomy does not disengage,” said Jim McPherson, a Benicia attorney and expert on mobility, in an email. “Think of disengagements like a credit score based on one variable, say, money spent. It does not tell us money made, average balance, credit worthiness, etc. Same with disengagements and safety.” He thinks the reports should be expanded to require more information and better explanations.

Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet, racked up a stunning 1.2 million autonomous miles in California in 2018. Its testers intervened 114 times, a rate of once every 11,017 miles. A year earlier, drivers had to take control of Waymo’s cars every 5,595 miles self-driven.

“A lower rate of disengagements shows that our cars are getting better at recognizing and handling a wide variety of driving situations, including ‘edge cases’ across the cities we’ve been testing in: those unusual situations that a human driver might see only once (or never) in a lifetime of driving,” Waymo said in a statement.

Cruise’s cars logged 447,621 miles with 86 disengagements, one every 5,205 miles. Last year humans took control of the wheel every 1,254 miles on average. Cruise noted that its miles per disengagement improved by 321 percent.

“By testing our self-driving vehicles in complex driving environments like San Francisco, we continue to maximize our (autonomous vehicles’) rate of learning,” Cruise said in a statement.

At the other end of the spectrum, Apple’s secretive robot car project, codenamed Titan, showed people taking control of its cars every 1.1 mile. Uber, which pulled its cars off the roads nationwide in late March after the fatal accident, had humans intervene every 0.35 miles from November 2017 until it ended testing. It said many of the disengagements happened for precautionary purposes.

Even Waymo CEO John Krafcik recently conceded that driverless cars won’t be ubiquitous for decades, and even then won’t be able to handle all types of weather and other conditions. In other words, robot cars that can rival human drivers in all circumstances may never happen.

“Autonomy always will have some constraints,” he said at a tech conference in November. Likewise, a top Toyota executive says that the idea of self-driving cars soon dominating roads is merely hype.

“There is no doubt that the industry is going through a ‘trough of disillusionment,’” starting with the Uber fatality, McPherson said.

Many prominent companies, including Lyft, Volkswagen, Voyage, Udacity, Tesla, Ford and Nio, did not have to report disengagements because they didn’t test on public roads, instead using private test tracks or simply not testing in California. Other companies such as Toyota, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Bosch and Nvidia tested only a handful of cars.

Many companies are now seeking to develop driverless trucks, which could operate without intervention on long highway routes.

©2019 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.