As Obama Touts Transportation Tech, Documents Douse Autonomous Enthusiasm
On the same night President Obama pressed the need to build a "21st century transportation system" in his final State of the Union speech, a new report released by one of the companies leading that charge showed serious potholes remain ahead.
Self-driving cars are one of the most promising technologies in that vision. One day, they could help reduce traffic fatalities, improve mobility and ease congestion.
But Google, a key player in autonomous testing, said Tuesday its vehicles had detected failures with autonomous technology 272 times between September 2014 and November 2015 which required drivers to take immediate control of the cars during testing on California roads. Drivers felt compelled to take control of the cars in 69 additional incidents during the same timespan.
Google wasn't alone. Six other automotive companies, as required by California statute, collectively reported thousands of autonomous disengagements during the same timeframe, dousing hopes – and plenty of hype – that autonomous cars might soon be commonplace in America. Together, the companies reported 2,894 disengagements on California public roads.
"Although we're not quite ready to declare that we're safer than average human drivers on public roads, we're happy to be making steady progress." – Chris Urmson
Though 11 companies are now approved for autonomous testing on California roads, only the seven that were testing in 2014 were required by California statute to disclose disengagements by Jan 1. Those reports were released Tuesday hours before Obama began a State of the Union speech that called for improvements in transportation technology. They come only two days before the federal government is expected to outline new guidance for the development of autonomous technologies.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is set to make an announcement Thursday in Detroit at the North American International Auto Show. Reports indicate he is scheduled to discuss accelerating the introduction of autonomous technology, a subject he addressed while speaking last week at CES in Las Vegas.
"The wave of technology coming into this sector has to be responded to in a timeframe that allows the best of it to get into the marketplace as soon as possible," Foxx said at the time. "So we are working through our agency on issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, and what they have to have. … We have regulations that say a human foot has to be on a pedal. We're looking at how to adjust our regulatory system to let these technologies take root."
Tuesday's developments come only weeks after California regulators adopted preliminary regulations that require operators of autonomous cars to receive training and hold a operators license for driving autonomous cars. Carmakers would also be required to have a third party certify the technology before the cars were offered for sale, according to the proposal. Google said it was "gravely disappointed" in the rules, which were more conservative than many industry insiders expected.
For Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit organization that has been a critic of self-driving testing on public roads and an advocate for those stricter limits, Tuesday's developments provided sobering insights into the early stages of autonomobiles.
"How can Google propose a car with no steering wheel, brakes or driver when its own tests show that over 15 months the robot technology and handed control to the driver 272 times and a test driver felt compelled to intervene 69 times," asked John Simpson, privacy director with Consumer Watchdog. "… It is imperative the DMV continue to put public safety first, and not cave to corporate and political pressure."
"We're looking at how to adjust our regulatory system to let these technologies take root." – Anthony Foxx
Google caught the brunt of his criticism Tuesday, and at 53 vehicles, the company operates the largest fleet of autonomous cars in the country. But the Silicon Valley giant, which offered insight into its incidents, was hardly alone in reporting hundreds of total disengagements of autonomous technology. Mercedes-Benz, which operates two autonomous cars on California's public roads, reported 1,051 disengagements, the most of any of the seven autonomous operators.
Volkswagen reported 260 for its two autonomous cars in California, while Nissan reported 106. The numbers are helpful, but another key factor in examining the numbers is how many miles the vehicles collectively logged during testing. Not all companies reported that information. Tesla Motors reported zero disengagements, but a spokesperson later declined to say how many vehicles the company tests on public roads or how many miles had been logged.
Among major suppliers, Bosch reported 625 total disengagements for two vehicles, and Delphi Automotive reported 511.
"Thanks to all this testing, we can develop measurable confidence in our abilities in various environments," said Chris Urmson, director of Google's self-driving car program, wrote in a blog post. "This stands in contrast to the hazy variability we accept in experienced human drivers — never mind the 16-year-olds we send onto the streets to learn amidst the rest of us. Although we're not quite ready to declare that we're safer than average human drivers on public roads, we're happy to be making steady progress toward the day we can start inviting members of the public to use our cars."