Waymo well ahead of rivals for autonomous driving performance

Waymo Autonomous Chrysler Pacifica

Although headlines like to tout how far down the road lots of companies are when it comes to making driverless vehicles a day-to-day reality on our roads and an increasing number of features from driverless research are now appearing on vehicles in our showrooms, truly autonomous vehicles don’t seem to be getting much closer to everyday reality. However, a report released this week by the California Department of Motor Vehicles reveals Waymo is one company that’s way out ahead of its rivals, according to a key measure of autonomous driving performance.

That key measure is how rarely a human has to take over control of the vehicle, and Waymo, the self-driving arm of Google parent company Alphabet, now has vehicles that require less human input than any others right now.

The state of California requires any company engaged in developing autonomous vehicle technology and testing their self-driving vehicles on public roads to provide a report each year on the amount of miles traveled in autonomous mode, as well as the number of what are called “disengagements.” Disengagements are when the self-driving system is deactivated and control of the vehicle is therefore passed back to humans, which can be due to circumstances such as a system failure, traffic, weather or road conditions that required the intervention of a human driver.

Although this data is a good way of measuring how reliable an autonomous drive system is, the regulators have still not worked out how safe driverless vehicles have to be before they are introduced in larger numbers, and crucially, eventually put on sale to the public. A current best guess at a time frame for driverless vehicles becoming a part of our everyday lives is that it could still be as far away as a decade or more.

The most recent of these disengagement reports shows Waymo vehicles between December 2016 and the end of November 2017 logged 5,596 miles without the safety drivers disengaging the autonomous system and retaking control. The next closest rival was Cruise, which is owned by General Motors, and only averaged 1,214 miles between disengagements.

But as Ford, Honda, BMW, Volkswagen AG and Tesla have said they didn’t conduct any autonomous driving testing on California’s roads during the time period, and therefore didn’t produce disengagement reports, the picture isn’t complete by any means.

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