Waymo, GM Lead Autonomous Car Testing in California

Alphabet’s self-driving car project, Waymo, and General Motors, the twin titans of autonomous vehicles, were the top-performing companies for vehicle testing, according to reports that the automakers submitted to California’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

As part of its regulations, California requires companies testing its self-driving vehicles on public roads to submit a report on the year’s test results, including disengagements, or incidents when a human operator had to manually take over the vehicle.

Waymo was way out in front, a leading position the company — formerly known as the Google self-driving car project — has held for numerous years, with just 62 disengagements reported for the year.

Overall, the company doubled its number of autonomous miles, racking up nearly 2 million miles over a 12-month period, with Waymo’s autonomous vehicles having self-driven more than 4 million miles across 25 US cities.

In the reporting period for California ending in November, the Waymo fleet travelled 352,545 autonomous miles in the state on public roads, navigating city streets, local neighborhoods and freeways, and saw the disengagement rate fall from 0.20 to 0.18 per thousand miles travelled.

While the California report is one indicator of Waymo’s continued success, it should be pointed out that the state DMV report is only a small look into the company’s ambitious program, which has shifted its center to Phoenix for the planned launch of its commercial ride-hailing service.

GM saw its vehicles drive a total of 131,676 miles in 2017, representing a 121,900-mile increase from 2016, and the company is currently seeking US government approval for a fully autonomous car, without a steering wheel or brake and accelerator pedals, to enter the company’s first commercial ride-sharing fleet next year.

Albert Boniske, director of product integrity for Cruise (GM’s self driving car division), wrote in a December report to the California DMV that Cruise self-driving vehicles, which are based on the Chevrolet Bolt platform, were used for all testing.

Boniske noted all the driving was done on San Francisco’s complex city streets, with 105 reported disengagements during the 12-month period — with a little under half of those disengagements undertaken due to other road users behaving poorly.

“Cities like San Francisco contain significantly more people, cars, and cyclists that our self-driving vehicles must be aware of at any given time,” Boniske noted. “That makes San Francisco one of the hardest places to test a self-driving vehicle, and creates a rich environment for testing our object detection, prediction, and response functions. It also helps us validate our vehicles’ self-driving skills faster than testing in a suburban location alone.”

Waymo’s testing is not just limited to real-world roads, however. In a Medium post touting its progress, Waymo revealed that last year the company drove an additional 2.7 billion miles in the virtual world.

“At its peak, Waymo’s simulators complete 2,000 complex driving scenarios each second,” the post explained.

In January, research firm Navigant released a leaderboard evaluating 19 companies developing automated driving systems, and found GM in the lead, followed by Waymo, Daimler-Bosch and Ford, with Volkswagen rounding out the Top Five.

Elon Musk’s Tesla finished dead last, despite the sophistication of the company’s vehicles and the high-profile efforts Telsa has made to introduce Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) to the market.

— Nathan Eddy is a filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter @dropdeaded209_LR.

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