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California’s self-driving cars: How often they require human intervention

Google handles well on its own while Uber’s require constant management, but the devil is in the details

A Mercedes outfitted by Google with a self-driving system, parked next to a Tesla in a public parking lot.
Google cars managed the most miles without human interference in 2016, although this does not necessarily reflect on the quality of the system.
Steve Jurvetson

On Thursday, BuzzFeed published numbers from a leaked road test of Uber’s self-driving cars, noting that human drivers must intervene regularly to keep the vehicle’s automated driving system out of trouble while navigating a straightaway road in Arizona:

According to Uber’s performance report on tests for the week of March 5, the company’s self-driving cars were able to travel an average of 0.67 miles on Scottsdale Road without human intervention and an average of 2 miles without a “bad experience” — Uber’s classification for incidents in which a car brakes too hard, jerks forcefully, or behaves in a way that might startle passengers.

The same report showed that self-driving Ubers averaged seven miles without human interference when driving a loop on the Arizona State University campus.

A few of the company’s autonomous vehicles have only recently returned to San Francisco’s streets.

While self-driving cars aren’t doing much self-driving just yet, the entire point of the road testing is to smooth out any any kinks. So mistakes are both expected and useful.

November 2016, a few weeks before California briefly banished Uber’s self-driving system.

Some of Uber’s many competitors in the self-driving car market have published videos of their own vehicles navigating city traffic for long stretches without human interference. But startups, of course, choose only the most successful test runs to make public.

For a more granular comparison, the California Department of Motor Vehicles published “disengagement reports” about 11 companies testing autonomous autos in the state. Here’s how many miles each managed without anyone taking the wheel in 2016:

  • Google: 5,127.9 miles (635,868 miles driven, 124 disengagements)
  • BMW: 638 miles (638 miles driven, 1 disengagements)
  • Nissan: 263.3 miles (6,056 miles driven, 23 disengagements)
  • Ford: 196.6 miles (590 miles driven, 3 disengagements)
  • General Motors: 54.7 miles (8,156 miles driven, 149 disengagements)
  • Delphi Automotive Systems: 14.9 miles (2,657.7 miles driven, 178 disengagements)
  • Tesla: 2.9 miles (550 miles, 185 disengagements)
  • Mercedes-Benz: 2 miles (673 miles, 336 disengagements)
  • Bosch: 0.68 miles (983 miles driven, 1,448 disengagements)

Volkswagen and Honda are licensed to test on public roads but haven’t yet, so they don’t have to report to the state. Uber apparently didn’t file a report either, even though they definitely did drive on public roads. Most of the reports do not include the month of December.

Note that a high number of disengagements is not necessarily bad. Virtually all of GM’s takeovers are marked as “planned test,” for example, while Tesla’s were almost exclusively from wet road conditions (a constant bugbear for robot driving) on a handful of days.