According to one of Google’s reports, between September 2014 and November 2015, their self-driving cars have had a total of 341 “disengagements” over a total distance of 424,331 miles. That’s what Google refers to when the test driver takes control of the vehicle.
It may seem like a huge number, but there’s no need to worry, since 272 of these disengagements happened because the sensors in the car detected a problem and handed control over to the driver in order to avoid danger. However, the remaining 69 are more disconcerting.
The cases when human intervention was necessary
So, the other 69 disengagements weren’t prompted by the sensors picking up some anomaly. They were caused by the direct intervention of the driver. There are many reasons why this could happen. A few examples would be the test driver being uncomfortable, other people on the road being reckless, or a problem with the car’s programming.
Google does a simulation for each of these cases in order to determine what would have happened if the driver didn’t take over. They have determined that in 13 of these cases, the car would have made contact with other objects (two of them being traffic cones).
Out of the 13 possible collisions, 3 would have happened because of other drivers, while the other 10 would have been Google’s fault. It’s worth keeping in mind that ever since being announced, Google’s self-driving cars have been involved in 11 accidents in real life.
Thankfully, none of them were serious. Also, they weren’t caused by the cars, but rather by the negligence of other drivers.
If the 13 disengagements would have actually happened, Google’s cars would have had an average of 30 crashes per 1 million miles.
A preliminary study made by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute approximated the average rate of a normal car at 1.9 crashes per million miles. Moreover, according to them, autonomous car crashes are less severe. They haven’t caused any fatalities, and all of them were caused by other drivers.
[ Image Credits: Becky Stern, Flickr Commons ]
Results from other companies working on self-driving cars
Out of all the companies making such cars, Google has been by far the most transparent. Mercedes-Benz, for example, reported that their two autonomous cars have had 1,031 disengagements over the course of 1,738 miles, but that all of them happened because of “technology evaluation management” or “the driver being uncomfortable”.
The people at Bosch have reported 126 disengagements over just 92 miles, but say that all of them were planned tests.
Tesla, the most cryptic of all, submitted a single-page report that claims there were no disengagements. They wouldn’t say how many miles were driven.
As you can see, not only is Google disclosing the most information, but it would also seem that they have the best results so far. That is if you disregard Tesla’s seemingly perfect record.
Their report also shows that these disengagements are happening less often and over longer distances, suggesting that technology is slowly reaching the point where seeing self-driving cars on streets won’t cause a legal nightmare.
They have also assured people that they are very serious about improving the software to the point where the cars perform safely. Despite this, back in December, the California DMV has released some draft rules prohibiting completely self-driving cars with no steering wheels or brake pedals.
Google has accused the state of California of interfering with their development as most of their cars have been test driven there. Further friction between the company and the DMV might result in Google missing their goal of commercializing autonomous cars by 2020.
What this means for autonomous cars
It would seem that the possibility of buying our very own self-driving car isn’t as close as some have hoped. We mostly have the technology needed. Plus, means of navigating, such as Toyota’s new mapping system, are popping up at an exponential rate.
In spite of this, the government has proven to be distrustful of these new cars and slow to accept them. It will most likely take a few more years than we imagined until fully autonomous cars will become available to the general public.
I would also like to hear what your thoughts are on this subject. Do you think Google will manage to come to terms with government officials? Or do you think that owning self-driving cars is still a distant dream?