Google's ambitious fully driverless goal still needs work

While most car manufacturers are experimenting with varying degrees of autonomous driving, Google has differentiated itself with plans for its cars to go completely driverless. But the findings in its latest disengagement report have added fuel to the widely held belief that its autonomous technology is not quite ready to confidently tackle the road completely on its own yet.  

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) requires all companies testing their vehicles on public roads in California to submit a disengagement report annually. This essentially lists all the times a driver has had to take over an autonomous vehicle.

So what is a disengagement exactly?

The DMV defines it as deactivating the autonomous mode in two situations. The first is when a “failure of the autonomous technology is detected” or “when the safe operation of the vehicle requires that the autonomous vehicle test driver disengage the autonomous mode and take immediate manual control of the vehicle”. This differentiation is important so that manufacturers are not mixing the two up when reporting back.

How did Google and the automakers do?

Google has been leading driverless technology since 2009 and its autonomous cars have driven for more than 1.3 million miles, 424,331 of which have occurred on public roads in California. Perhaps down to its extensive experience, its disengagement report is quite detailed but other car manufacturers have not been so forthcoming.

Some have given detailed breakdowns of weather and traffic conditions with explanations of why the driver took over. Others are less detailed, only giving vague outlines.

Google reported a total of 341 disengagements covering the period from September 24th 2014 to November 30th, 2015.  272 of those disengagements were related to a detection of a failure in the autonomous technology. The report listed the numbers of disengagements related to causes like “weather conditions” or “perception discrepancy”. In the vast majority of the cases, the driver took control in one second or less.

Delphi also went into a considerable amount of detail, outlining 405 disengagements due to specific reasons like “other driver unexpected behaviour” and “poor lane markings”. Nissan went a step further by including a full description of the facts at the time of incident and reported a total of 106 disengagements, covering the period from November 2014 to November 2015.

Mercedes on the other hand took a less detailed approach, giving mostly a “clear” for weather conditions and reaction times. The cause for disengagements were given mostly given as either “driver was uncomfortable” or the vague “technology evaluation management”. Tesla simply said there were “Zero (0) autonomous mode disengagements”. Volkswagen also used vague language like “watchdog error” when describing the failure.

Critics of Google’s “fully autonomous” approach will probably see these report findings as further proof of the fact that humans will always be required to take over the autonomous vehicle at some point. But this might be too simplistic. Backchannel's Editor, Steven Levy tested Google’s driverless car and spoke about Google’s vigorous testing methodology. He said that “even though Google’s cars have autonomously driven more than 1.3 million miles—routinely logging 10,000 to 15,000 more every week — they have been tested many times more in software, where it’s possible to model 3 million miles of driving in a single day.”

Interestingly he noted that “commandeering a car that drives itself is a fairly demanding job” and that the driver is “constantly poised to wrest control from the car”. But he observed that Google’s driverless car knew what it was doing and was impressed by its ability to even “wait a couple of seconds before proceeding at a green light, just in case someone’s running the light.”

John Krafcik, president of Google's self-driving car project is adamant that “the car has to shoulder the whole burden” but he admits that Google will have to partner with other car manufacturers as this is too hefty a task for Google to handle on its own. As Levy observes, “we’re maybe 95 percent there, but that last five percent will be a lengthy slog.”


Also read

Google’s self-driving report on slow driving and emergency vehicles

China’s Baidu’s autonomous driving is impressive in Beijing

Driverless cars: Is semi-autonomous the future?


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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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