Each year technology’s promise of having autonomous vehicles ruling the roads seems to be a bit more fleeting, or at least a bit further off, but that hasn’t stalled the efforts of would-be makers of self-driving cars to deliver a new generation of personal transportation.
In the nation’s most populous state, testing of self-driving vehicles has continued to gain steam in recent years.
The autonomous miles driven, the number of permit holders to test autonomous vehicles, the number of test vehicles and the number of safety drivers all rose significantly last year, according to a new report out from the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
Permit holders drove 2.8 million miles in autonomous mode during the most recent reporting period, according to the latest data. That’s up from 2.05 million miles during the 2018 reporting period.
In 2019, the DMV issued six new permits for testing with a driver, registered 189 new test vehicles, and permitted 427 new safety drivers, according to Marty Greenstein, a public information officer for the DMV.
“At the end of the year, we had 65 active permit holders, 859 permitted test vehicles and 2,812 permitted safety drivers,” Greenstein said.
This news comes around the same time as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced it was proposing sweeping changes to U.S. safety requirements to speed the deployment of self-driving vehicles without human controls.
NHTSA said Tuesday it is proposing to rewrite 11 safety standards that require traditional manual control “by revising the requirements and test procedures to account for the removal of manually-operated driving controls.”
The agency earlier this month chided regulators for lagging their European counterparts in efforts to ensure consumer and road safety, such as providing technology that automates steering and braking.
Big names reporting on testing activities in California include several well-known companies like Apple Inc., BMW of North America, Lyft, Mercedes Benz Research, Nissan North America, Qualcomm Technology, and Toyota Research Institute.
The list also includes lesser known companies that have several vehicles logging lots of miles on California roads, such as Aurora Innovation, Drive.ai Inc., Nullmax, Nuro, NVIDIA, SAIC Innovation Center, Udelv Inc., Valeo North America, WeRide Corp. and Zoox Inc.
The DMV also issued along with its statistics a disengagement report, which details failures of technology or times when the test driver needs to take control of the vehicle during testing.
The report shows most of the most common disengagements are due to:
- Safety driver intervention: The driver encountered an external or environmental factor where immediate control had to be taken to maintain safety (other road user, or sudden change in weather).
- Hardware: A vehicle or equipment component complication.
- Software: AV technology encountered difficulty validating or perceiving environment and disengaged.
The maker with the largest number of reported disengagements was Waymo LLC. To be fair Waymo, owned by Google parent Alphabet Inc., also logged most miles driven at roughly 1.45 million miles.
“In situations where we notice a high number of disengagements, we talk to the permit holder to gain a better understanding of why those are occurring,” Greenstein said. “The most common response we hear is an emphasis on public safety and a cautious approach to testing. A high number of disengagements does not necessarily reflect technological or safety issues but could be more indicative of testing environments or procedures.”
The reports are a requirement for permit holders to test and are intended to provide insights on a company’s testing activities in California, but they aren’t intended to compare one company with another or reach broad conclusions on technological capabilities, according to Greenstein.
“Permit holders all have different goals and business models, and are testing in different ways, locations and conditions with different amounts of vehicles,” he said.
The reported mileage only reflects autonomous testing on public roads. Companies aren’t required to report testing on private roads or test tracks, testing that occurs out of state, testing below SAE Level 3 (vehicles with only automated steering and acceleration capabilities, a single automated aspect or that are fully manual) or testing done in simulation.
Harold Weston, a professor in risk management and insurance at Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business, was impressed by the miles logged by autonomous testing in California.
However, he thinks the personal insurance agent writing auto policies has a while before autonomous vehicles make roads so safe that it eliminates the need for drivers to buy auto insurance.
“This is not going to happen as quickly as the happy technology guys promised, and we still don’t have flying cars either,” Weston quipped.
He believes that not only are the early promises of a booming autonomous vehicle population premature, but that even given the current levels testing, “there’s going to be quite some time until these vehicles are driving on their own.”
When and if self-driving cars are the norm, then the personal insurance agent who relies on auto policy sales should be concerned, he said.
“I think that’s the trend,” he said, adding that so much of mass market insurance advertising is about offering the lowest rates instead of adequate coverage. “I think it’s driven by the expectation that auto insurance is a commodity and it’s all the same.”
Eventually he sees a natural transference of risk financing responsibility shifting from individual drivers to manufacturers, completely removing the need for personal insurance when vehicles become fully autonomous.
“I see no reason why the passenger or the owner has any liability,” he said. “When the vehicle is making all the driving decisions, then it’s a product liability problem.”
Like many other experts who anticipate a likely reduction in accidents with autonomous vehicles, he sees personal auto premiums eventually dropping even as losses from crashes rise with the addition of more and more technology on each vehicle.
“The more vehicles become self-driving and we are experiencing enormous drop in accidents, the more everything drops,” he said.
He believes the improved safety will also predicate drops in areas like medical insurance, workers’ compensation and disability.
“The reduction in accidents that will happen with self-driving vehicles will effect many other lines of insurance beside just auto insurance,” Weston said. “I see a whole lot of consequences of reducing the slaughter and mayhem on the roads.”
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