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California DMV Creates First Public Data Set on Driverless Car Crashes

The state Department of Motor Vehicles has released the details of nine crashes that have happened on public roads since September 2014, and will continue to release reports in the future.

With the release of nine reports, the California Department of Motor Vehicles has created what is likely the first public data set on driverless car crashes in the U.S.

The DMV released all its reports on autonomous vehicle (AV) crashes on Thursday, including details such as vehicle speeds, location and the circumstances of each crash. Eight of the nine belonged to Google, which operates by far the largest fleet of experimental driverless cars in the state, while the ninth belonged to Delphi Automotive. As Google noted in its own monthly reports before the data dump, none of the crashes were the fault of the self-driving software. The director of the Google AV program has said publicly that the company is working on making the cars drive more like humans.

Johnny Luu, a spokesperson for Google’s self-driving car project, referred requests for comment to the company’s monthly project reports. But from DMV spokesperson Jessica Gonzalez's perspective, it appears that the cars are driving more cautiously than humans.

“Where the DMV stands is that we can’t take a stance on cause or who’s at fault for the accident. We can really only take in the report,” Gonzalez said. “But if you look at the Google accidents … you could come to the conclusion that it looks like the driverless cars are more cautious than the [human-driven] cars that are out there.”

Gonzalez said that as far as she knows, the DMV reports are the first data set on AV crashes to be made public.

Companies testing driverless cars on public roads in California — 10 have permits, according to the department’s website — are doing so under regulations from the DMV that only cover the experimental phase of AV operation. The department is in the pre-proposal phase of developing regulations that will govern the non-testing use of driverless driving, and Gonzalez said the department doesn’t yet have a definite timeline on when it will propose the rules.

But the testing phase crash reports will play a part in what those rules require.

“We are seeing there luckily haven’t been any major crashes, and mostly minor accidents happened at low speeds or [while] stopped,” she said. “And we can’t really say at this time what that means, but we’re hoping that over time it gives us a better picture of what’s happening on the roads during testing.”

The nine crash reports show that the self-driving software was in control of the vehicle during the majority of the accidents. The test vehicles were either stopped or decelerating during every single one of the incidents, and most of the crashes were rear-ends at intersections. The most violent of the crashes happened when a Delphi vehicle was stopped in traffic and another car swerved over a concrete island, smashing into the test car at 25-30 mph.

Aside from that, most of the accidents were low-speed — in reports where the information was given, the average speed of the other vehicle was 9.5 mph.

A spreadsheet summarizing the crash reports is here.

The reports don’t reflect every car crash in the state that’s involved a driverless car — the DMV only started requiring AV operators to submit crash reports in September 2014. In its monthly reports on its driverless car program, Google has reported that its vehicles have been involved in a total of 16 accidents.

John Simpson, privacy project director for Consumer Watchdog, has posited before that the robotic logic used to direct driverless cars might throw off drivers who are used to reacting to typical human driving behavior. Simpson said he’s happy to see the DMV open up access to the car crash files, but that the public should have more information still.

“Yes, I’m delighted that they took our suggestion and started to post these and [are] making them more readily accessible and available," Simpson said, "but the fundamental flaw is that they’re still relying on the companies for their version of what happened, and I think we need that neutral third party involved."

That’s why Simpson submitted a formal rulemaking request to the DMV in September asking for the department to require AV operators to hand over more information about crashes. That would include video and technical data. He also called for the department to require operators to call police to the scenes of accidents.

“Video can tell you what happened,” he said. “Humans have selective memories.”

Gonzalez said the DMV will continue to release AV crash reports as it receives them, likely with a five- to 10-day delay to allow for redacting and legal scrutiny. Starting in January, the DMV will require AV operators to include more information in the reports, such as details on incidents when the car’s software gave control to the human driver without the driver initiating the switch.

Gonzalez said the DMV has not yet decided whether it will pursue Consumer Watchdog’s rulemaking proposal.

Google is also testing 14 self-driving cars in Austin, Texas, but that state has yet to regulate such testing. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, the Texas Legislature failed to pass three bills related to autonomous vehicles during its 2015 session.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.