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Waymo sues California DMV to keep driverless crash data under wraps

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The Alphabet company is seeking to block a public records request for its driverless permit to the DMV

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Photo by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

Waymo filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Motor Vehicles to keep driverless car crash data from being made public. The autonomous vehicle operator, which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, claims that such data should be considered a trade secret. The news of the lawsuit was first reported by Business Insider and later by the Los Angeles Times.

California’s DMV oversees the largest autonomous vehicle testing program in the country, with over 60 companies permitted to operate test vehicles on public roads. Only a handful are approved to operate fully autonomous vehicles without safety drivers at the wheel, and even fewer have been approved to deploy vehicles for commercial purposes.

Waymo is seeking to keep private information about how it handles certain autonomous vehicle emergencies, how it responds when its vehicles attempt to drive somewhere they are not intended to go, and how they handle steep hills or tight curves. Waymo is currently testing some of its vehicles in downtown San Francisco, where it is permitted to operate fully driverless cars without safety drivers.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Sacramento County Superior Court last week, argues that releasing this information to the public would put Waymo at a competitive disadvantage.

Making public the process by which Waymo analyzes crashes “could provide strategic insight to Waymo’s competitors and third parties regarding Waymo’s assessment of those collisions from a variety of different perspectives, including potential technological remediation,” the company argues.

Moreover, it could have a “chilling effect” on the entire autonomous vehicle industry. “Potential market participants interested in deploying autonomous vehicles in California will be dissuaded from investing valuable time and resources developing this technology if there is a demonstrated track record of their trade secrets being released,” Waymo claims.

The suit stems from a public records request to the DMV from an unidentified party seeking Waymo’s application for a permit to operate driverless cars on public roads. Before complying with the request, the DMV allowed Waymo to redact certain details. The individual seeking the information challenged the redactions, and the DMV advised Waymo to seek an injunction through a lawsuit if it wanted to block that challenge.

“Every autonomous vehicle company has an obligation to demonstrate the safety of its technology, which is why we’ve transparently and consistently shared data on our safety readiness with the public,” Nicholas Smith, a spokesperson for Waymo, said in a statement. “We will continue to work with the DMV to determine what is appropriate for us to share publicly and hope to find a resolution soon.”

A spokesperson for the DMV declined to comment on “active litigation.”

Every year, companies that operate autonomous vehicles in California are required to submit data to the DMV listing the number of miles driven and the frequency at which human safety drivers were forced to take control of their autonomous vehicles (also known as a “disengagement”). The companies have been mostly critical of this process, describing the reports as a misleading and ultimately useless way to track AV testing progress in the state.

AV companies can be a black box of information, with most firms keeping a tight lid on important metrics and only demonstrating their technology under the most controlled settings.

Waymo has been more willing to share data than most AV companies, but largely on its own terms. In 2020, the company published 6.1 million miles of driving data from 2019 and 2020 from its test fleet in Arizona, including 18 crashes and 29 near-miss collisions. More recently, Waymo simulated dozens of real-world fatal crashes that took place in Arizona over nearly a decade to demonstrate how its vehicles could have helped prevent them.