California may have been dubbed the Golden State, but it could just as easily be called the Driving State. As the third largest state in the US, California was built around the use of the automobile. Freeways sit at the heart of California’s central nervous system, with some of the country’s most famous highways crawling along the crest of the state. As a result, California has – unsurprisingly – the largest number of licensed drivers in the country, totaling over 26 million.
Every year, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) releases an annual report detailing the number of disengagements reported by companies that license autonomous vehicles. Disengagements refer to the number of times that the test driver of an autonomous vehicle has to intervene and assume manual control during its test on public roads. This can be due to safety reasons, or because the AV system has failed or disengaged on its own by mistake. The 2017 annual report has been released and it reveals a number of new developments for companies that have put a large focus on the development of autonomous vehicles. These companies include GM, Waymo and, of course, Tesla.
General Motors’ Cruise line yielded very positive results, with a reported 1400% improvement in performance from the previous report. The number of miles between disengagements went from 300 miles to an average of 4,600. Waymo saw a similar performance increase, with the company saying that their automated cars have driven over 4 million miles across the United States, with 2 million of that over the last year alone. The total number of disengagements dropped to 0.18 per 1,000 miles driven, which beats the GM Cruise, although GM has focused on denser urban areas as opposed to wide open distances, meaning the data collected features different caveats and nuances.
Tesla Steals the Show
However, Tesla – in many ways the crown jewel of the automated car industry – spent no time testing automated vehicles during the whole of 2017, despite having acquired permission to test out their AVs in California. Tesla’s autopilot software falls under Level 2 semi-automation, meaning it doesn’t quite fall under a DMV sanction AV category. Yet the company, thanks in no small part to Elon Musk’s global popularity, as well as the brand loyalty Tesla has already acquired, has allowed the company the opportunity to test out their vehicles. Yet the data it gathers from the cars on the road, combined with AV testing the company has done in order public settings around the world, has let it develop an autonomous vehicle with more efficiency than those tested on hyper-specific roads, be they urban or rural.
More Data, More Competition
The annual report might seem a bit like insider’s baseball. After all, if it barely applies to those who own automated vehicles, why should it apply to the majority of the population who don’t? The reasoning behind this is that the development of new data is going a lot way in pushing companies to compete with one another and release what could be the definitive AV on the market. When Toyota launched the Prius in 1997, initially as a four-door sedan, the company led the charge on, well, charged automobiles, pushing hybrid cars in the wake of the failure of electric.
One of these companies (or perhaps an as-of-yet unseen competitor) is going to produce the Prius of AVs, and manage to change the way in which we interact on the road. Nearly 1.3 million people die each year on the road in driving-related accidents; that is an average of 3,287 deaths a day. On top of that, an additional 20-50 million people each year are either injured or disabled as a result of road accidents. And more than half of these statistics befall adults aged 15-44 years. Automated cars are still in their infancy, their kinks being worked out before they enter the mainstream market. Each time a report like this is released, it serves as a reminder to the public that the future of automation isn’t just in passive technology or the push to full-blown automation. It’s in the ways that we can save lives and change statistics so that maybe one day no driver will ever have to be one.
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