California’s Department of Motor Vehicles released its annual autonomous vehicle disengagement report today. In the report, all companies that are actively testing self-driving cars on public roads in the Golden State disclose the number of miles driven and the frequency in which human drivers were forced to take control of their driverless vehicles. The biggest takeaway is that this is still Waymo (née Google) and GM’s party, and everyone else is playing catch-up.
this is still Waymo and GM’s party
Waymo says it drove a total of 352,545 miles autonomously in California for the 12-month period that ended November 2017. That’s a steep drop from the number of miles driven in 2016 — 635,868 miles — which highlights the fact that Waymo has moved much of its fleet to Phoenix in advance of the launch of its commercial ride-hailing service. Waymo also reported that it had a paltry number of disengagements, 63, for the entire year.
A Waymo spokesperson said that disengagements are a part of the testing process, as the company rolls out new vehicles (its self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivan made its debut last year) and tests new skills. Having driven more miles than any other company by an order of magnitude, and in over two dozen US cities, the company doesn’t seem to see the DMV’s annual reports as indicative of its overall testing program anymore.
GM’s self-driving division Cruise told the California DMV that it drove a total of 131,676 miles in 2017 — a 121,900-mile increase over 2016. Its vehicles (which have a range of hilarious names like Albatross, Sunbear, and Mongoose) reported disengaging 105 times during the 12-month period. A spokesperson touted the company’s “1400 percent rate of improvement” in the performance of its autonomous systems. “We’re really excited about the rate of improvement that we see year-over-year,” he said. “It’s another proof point in our mission to bring an autonomous ride-sharing vehicle to market in 2019.”
One result of the sharp increase in GM’s number of miles driven is a plethora of accidents. The auto giant’s autonomous cars were involved in 22 fender benders over the course of the reporting period (and two more in 2018). That’s one crash for every 5,985 miles of testing.
The reports are further evidence that the intense competition to create self-driving cars is — for now — a two-person race between Waymo and GM. That was also the message from Navigant’s leaderboard analysis released earlier this year. In a sign that Waymo and GM only have eyes for each other, Waymo’s Medium post on the news today accidentally linked to GM’s report rather than its own, as noted by Jalopnik’s Ryan Felton. (The link was later fixed.)
No other company came close to racking up the same number of miles as Waymo and GM. Drive.ai drove 6,127 miles; Nissan 5,007 miles; Zoox 2,244 miles; Bosch 2,052 miles; Aptiv 1,810 miles; and so on. (If you haven’t heard of some of these companies, don’t feel bad. Some are auto suppliers, others still fairly small startups.)
Several major automakers like Ford, BMW, Honda, and Volkswagen reported driving zero miles autonomously on public roads in California. This shouldn’t be interpreted as these companies lagging in the self-driving race. Some are testing their vehicles in other states or countries, or on closed-course proving grounds. And the fact that they applied for permits from the DMV seems to indicate they will be testing at some point down the road.
California’s annual reports are closely watched in the self-driving world
California’s annual reports are closely watched in the self-driving world, mainly for the sheer number of companies that test there and the state’s rules that require disclosure of miles driven, disengagements, and accidents. More often than not, the reports are criticized from all sides, with the companies complaining about the amount of work that goes into their production, and academics and experts chiding their lack of context.
Another company that stands out is Tesla, which reported driving zero miles autonomously on public roads. The company says that it conducts its testing “via simulation, in laboratories, on test tracks, and on public roads in various locations around the world.” And with hundreds of thousands of vehicles on the road today, Tesla touted its method of “shadow-testing” its autonomous capabilities, by which the company collects anonymized data from its fleet of customer-owned vehicles during normal driving operations. These vehicles are not autonomous, but Tesla claims this method will help it achieve “full self-driving” capabilities.
Noticeably absent from the list of companies with reports to disclose is Uber. You may recall the dust-up between the ride-hail company and the DMV when Uber refused to apply for a license to test its autonomous vehicles in California. The DMV ordered Uber’s self-driving cars off the road, and the company made a big show of shipping them to Arizona (where the rules are far less stringent). Uber eventually acquiesced and received its testing permit in May 2017. As such, the company was not required to submit a report this time.