As Calif. AV Population Doubles, So Do Crashes

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As Calif. AV Population Doubles, So Do Crashes


December 10, 2018

In the beginning, self-driving vehicles could be spotted only on the streets near Silicon Valley tech companies whose work made them possible. Now they’re much more widespread.

Autonomous vehicle projects are underway in hot spots such as Phoenix, Pittsburgh and Miami, as well as in places such as Grand Rapids, Mich.; Columbus, Ohio; and Texas. Even Rhode Island has announced plans to start self-driving shuttle service in Providence.

But California, despite having the most stringent regulations and reporting requirements for autonomous vehicles, remains perhaps the pre-eminent proving ground for self-driving technology.

With three weeks left in 2018, the Golden State already has had a record year for the number of manufacturers permitted to test autonomous vehicles, the number of those vehicles permitted on the road and the number of crashes involving those vehicles.

The number of manufacturers receiving permits from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test self-driving vehicles ballooned to 65 so far this year from 46 in 2017. The number of self-driving vehicles has more than doubled, with 658 receiving permits this year, up from 326 in 2017.

And the number of collisions involving autonomous vehicles also has more than doubled, to 67 this year from 29 in 2017.

“We have more permit holders testing more vehicles than we have had in years past, so the likelihood of an incident is naturally going to be higher,” says Marty Greenstein, a spokesman for the California DMV.

No other state tracks such figures, making precise comparisons difficult. But except for Arizona, where Waymo has built a test fleet of roughly 400 vehicles — the company has been tight-lipped about the exact number — it’s widely believed that no other state has close to the number of self-driving vehicles on the road as California.

On the rise

Collisions involving autonomous vehicles in California, by manufacturer

  • 2018 (through Dec. 1)
  • Cruise: 35
  • Waymo: 20
  • Zoox: 5
  • Aurora Innovation: 2
  • Apple: 2
  • Drive.Ai: 1
  • Toyota Research Institute: 1
  • Jingchi Corp.: 1
  • TOTAL: 67
  • 2017
  • Cruise Automation: 22
  • Waymo: 3
  • Uber ATC: 3
  • Zoox: 1
  • TOTAL: 29
  • 2016
  • Waymo/Google: 13
  • Cruise: 1
  • Nissan: 1
  • TOTAL: 15
  • Data compiled by Automotive News from California Department of Motor Vehicle records

Struck from behind

In terms of traffic safety, California’s figures may provide a glimpse of how self-driving cars behave on public roads. While the presence of autonomous vehicles does not necessarily mean they were at fault, one trend is notable: Self-driving vehicles have been susceptible to getting rear-ended.

Since the start of 2016, 111 crashes involving autonomous vehicles have been reported in California. Seventy-one of those have occurred while the vehicles operated in autonomous mode, according to a review of DMV reports. Of those, 51 — or 72 percent — have involved an autonomous vehicle getting struck from behind.

Over the past three years, Cruise, General Motors’ autonomous vehicle subsidiary, has been involved in 41 crashes in which autonomous mode was enabled. Of those, 27 were incidents in which Cruise vehicles were rear-ended.

In the same period, Waymo, Google’s self-driving technology affiliate, has been involved in 26 crashes in California in which autonomous mode was enabled. Twenty-one of those involved Waymo vehicles being struck from behind.

Ramping up testing

John Simpson, Privacy Project director at Consumer Watchdog, a California nonprofit that has studied autonomous-vehicle developments in the state and advocated for more safeguards, says the high proportion of rear-end collisions points to a fundamental challenge.

“These cars do not behave the way a human driver expects a car to behave,” Simpson said. Many of the rear-end collisions “have happened at low speeds, and no one has been seriously hurt. But I think the verdict is still out on whether these cars can interact safely and consistently, and at higher speeds.”

Cruise and Waymo, two of the companies with the most autonomous vehicles permitted for testing in California, have ramped up testing in the state.

Cruise, with testing centered in San Francisco, has the most vehicles permitted to operate in the state, with 175. The company had 109 vehicles permitted in 2017, according to state records. It intends to launch commercially next year.

Waymo launched its commercial service with self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans last week in the Phoenix area — albeit to a handpicked audience and with human safety drivers behind the wheel. But the company has reinvigorated its California efforts. The number of Waymo vehicles permitted for testing in California dipped from 74 in 2016 to 23 last year. But this year, Waymo has 121 self-driving vehicles permitted for California testing.

Cruise and Waymo are primarily responsible for the increase in permitted test vehicles, but they’re hardly the only ones. Apple, long secretive about its autonomous vehicle intentions, increased its number of permitted test vehicles to 72 this year from 14 in 2017. And Tesla has steadily built its permitted test fleet from one car in 2016 to 39 last year and 47 this year, according to state records.

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