Breaking with previous policy, the California Department of Motor Vehicles said Thursday it will now release reports from accidents involving self-driving cars.
The decision comes amid mounting scrutiny of how companies like Google test autonomous technology on public roadways. For months, DMV officials have declined to release such records because accident reports contain personal information about drivers considered confidential under California public-records laws. California officials say they'll still withhold personal information, but now release all other portions of accident reports.
"After further review, DMV has determined that it is possible to release the factual information related to the autonomous vehicle reports, so long as the personal information of the drivers involved in the accidents" is not disclosed, Roger J. Sato, the agency's senior staff counsel, said.
Thirteen known accidents have occurred involving self-driving cars. Google has long stated human error caused all 12 of the accidents involving its self-driving cars. Until Thursday, it was impossible for outsiders to fully verify those statements.
"I think people testing these vehicles, if they want to have any sort of sense the public is going to trust them, they've got to be out there with all the facts," said John Simpson an advocate with Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit based in California that had urged Google to release relevant reports. "… These reports will help us get at what's going on, and where there might be problems."
In response to criticism, Google recently increased the amount and type of information it released about its accidents. Last week, the company issued the first of what it says will be monthly reports on its self-driving car program. The first installment contained synopses on all previous accidents. A company spokesperson said the information came directly from the section five of the self-driving car accident reports, which provides a summary of accident circumstances. That information matches the section-five summaries released by the DMV.
Yet the California DMV reports provide additional insight. In a separate section, the official reports contain information on the time of day that accidents occurred. Though all accidents thus far have been the fault of human drivers, this information could potentially yield clues in the future on how well certain sensors work in daylight versus darkness should a self-driving car ever be at fault in an accident.
Google declined comment on Thursday's developments.
Autonomous testing on California roads has increased in recent months. Google operates 23 self-driving vehicles in the state. Tesla operates 12 cars, and several other carmakers and suppliers maintain smaller fleets. Overall, there are 48 vehicles and 277 drivers, according to the most recent data available.
Google executives have previously noted Simpson has been a persistent critic, but even Simpson understands the long-term promise in self-driving technology.
"Believe it or not, I'm not a Luddite," he told Autoblog. "I think someday this technology will make highways safer for everybody, but it's quite possible there's going to be a difficult time with a substantial number of robot cars on the road and a great majority of cars still driven by humans. So the official accident reports, they're very important for the public to see."