The California Department of Motor Vehicles on Wednesday released reports detailing how many times in 2019 human safety operators had to take control of self-driving vehicles being tested in the state. According to the reports, robot cars in autonomous mode drove almost 2.9 million miles on public California roads last year, up from 2.1 million miles in 2018.
For a variety of reasons, disengagements are a crummy tool for measuring progress toward safe, efficient autonomy, and for comparing momentum across companies. For one, the players don’t always define “disengagement” in the same way. Plus, lots of the big autonomous vehicle players—Waymo, Uber, Argo AI—do the bulk of their testing outside of California. Companies have more sophisticated internal metrics for measuring their own success—you can read about those here. The reports also do not include driving on private test facilities and campuses, nor the many more “virtual miles” that autonomous vehicle systems travel in digital space.
But the reports aren’t devoid of interesting information. They include how many miles each company covered and how many cars it operates, and the reason for each disengagement. Taken together and compared with data from years past, those data reveal a few noteworthy trends and details about the ongoing race to develop the self-driving car.
Of the 36 companies that reported testing in California between December 1, 2018 and November 30, 2019, Cruise’s filing may reveal the most about its progress. That’s because the General Motors subsidiary does nearly all its public road testing in San Francisco, where it’s aiming to launch a robo-taxi service in the next few years. CEO Dan Ammann last year delayed Cruise’s initial plan to launch in 2019, and said the company was building out its fleet of test vehicles to log more miles. Now, we know what he meant: Cruise ran 226 vehicles in California in 2019, up from 125 in 2018. It logged 831,000 miles, up from 447,600.
In the same stretch, Apple’s secretive self-driving effort built up its fleet, but effectively stopped driving on public roads. All of its disengagements occurred between June and November, indicating that its cars drove very little in the first half of the year. The company laid off more than 200 of its Project Titan employees in January 2019, then acquired (and hired employees from) the self-driving startup Drive.ai in June.