GM Ramps Up Testing of Self-Driving Cars, But Still Lags Waymo

01/31/18 09:37 PM EST
By Tim Higgins 

General Motors Co. reported progress in the consistency of its autonomous-driving system last year as it sharply increased testing on the roads of California, though it remained well behind the self-driving tech unit of Google-parent Alphabet Inc., according to state records.

GM's Cruise Automation and Alphabet's Waymo logged the most test miles on California public roads for their autonomous vehicles in 2017, according to annual reports from companies with testing permits in California that the Department of Motor Vehicles released on Wednesday.

The reports are rare window into the companies' testing of automated driving technology that could reshape the automotive industry. California has for years been the main location for such tests -- though some companies have expanded trials elsewhere recently -- and it requires more public disclosure of testing companies than most other states.

Cruise logged about 132,000 miles of test driving last year in California in the 2017 reporting period, which ran from December 2016 through last November. That was more than 13 times as many miles as in the previous year. Waymo logged a far larger 353,000 miles, though that was almost half from the 2016 period as the company has refocused its fleet of vehicles to Phoenix ahead of introducing a commercial driverless ride-hailing service this year.

Tech companies and auto makers, locked in a race to develop autonomous technology, are spending billions of dollars in developing the technology, though there remain questions about when it will be ready for mainstream adoption and whether regulations and society will be ready.

Cruise reported making headway on reducing the frequency of times when its autonomous technology is deactivated because of a failure or because a safety operator took control -- a figure companies are required to report.

Human operators had to take control 0.797 times for every 1,000 miles driven, compared with 18.51 times in 2016, the records show. Waymo's so-called disengagement rate improved slightly last year to 0.179 per 1,000 miles from 0.195 in 2016.

Albert Boniske, Cruise director of product integrity, said in a letter to the state included in Wednesday's disclosure that none of the disengagements it reported for last year were made "as a result of a failure of the autonomous technology."

Some analysts question the value of the disengagement reports, however, in part because California allows companies to interpret disengagement incidents differently.

"The California disengagement report says almost nothing about progress, " Eric Paul Dennis, an analyst at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., said on Twitter. "It's not a controlled metric."

Cruise had the greatest number of crashes during testing last year, with state records showing 21 during the 2017 reporting period. Waymo had four crashes, the next largest number, followed by Uber Technologies and Zoox, which each had one.

"Cruise's rapid rate of improvement, in the most complex testing environments, is why we're confident in our ability to safely deploy self-driving cars in 2019," a Cruise spokesman said.

While Waymo decreased its testing in California, it doubled the number of miles traveled overall to 2 million last year and logged 2.7 billion in a simulator.

Waymo said its testing program enables it to gather as much data as possible to improve its technology. "Disengagements -- when a test driver takes manual control of a vehicle while it is in autonomous mode -- are a piece of that data," it said in a blog post.

Several companies that are developing autonomous-driving technology, including Tesla Inc. and BMW AG, logged no miles in California during the 2017 period. A Tesla official wrote to the state that it does testing on public roads in various locations globally, and that it gathers data from Tesla customers who test its autonomous technology in so-called shadow-mode during normal operations of their Tesla cars.

Write to Tim Higgins at Tim.Higgins@WSJ.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 31, 2018 21:37 ET (02:37 GMT)

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