Fewer tech glitches in Google self-driving cars

Read time 4min 00sec
A prototype of Google's self-driving vehicle.
A prototype of Google's self-driving vehicle.

Google said yesterday the rate of software failures in its self-driving cars is declining as the technology learns from its mistakes, bringing the tech company closer to its goal of fully autonomous vehicles.

In 682 362km of autonomous driving, Google said its cars had experienced 272 episodes in which the human test driver had to assume control of the vehicle, an occurrence called "disengagement", when the autonomous technology failed.

"As we continue to develop and refine the self-driving software, we are seeing fewer disengagements" despite more kilometres driven, Google said in a 33-page report submitted by law to the California Department of Motor Vehicles on 31 December.

California regulations call for test drivers and steering wheels in autonomous vehicles.

Google's development of self-driving cars has spurred outsized interest around the world, but the company best known for search has disclosed little about its strategy, business plans or ultimate goals.

Without the need to watch the road, people in cars will talk on phones, watch entertainment, purchase consumer goods, among many other options, providing valuable data to Google.

The report, covering the period 24 September 2014, when Google began testing on roads of Palo Alto, California, to 30 November 2015, found disengagements occurred about every 1 263km in the fourth quarter of 2014. A year later, that had expanded to 8 558km between episodes.

Eighty-nine percent of disengagements occurred on city streets, where more obstacles and stop-and-go traffic make autonomous driving more difficult.

Project director Chris Urmson said Google deliberately tests cars in different weather and times of the day, which explained why some months saw more episodes than others.

Google, a unit of Alphabet, said it kept the threshold for measuring disengagements low to gather as much data as possible to refine the technology.

There were another 69 episodes in which the test driver chose to take control of the vehicle rather than the car signalling to the driver to take control.

Using a simulator to replay the situation, Google found in 13 of these instances its cars would have hit another object had the test driver not taken control. Google said two involved traffic cones, and three were due to "another driver's reckless behaviour".

Urmson said the California DMV had not seen the report when it issued draft rules in December restricting how autonomous vehicles could operate for the next three years.

More partnerships

Google wants to form more partnerships with established automakers and suppliers this year to accelerate its work on self-driving cars, the head of the Google project said yesterday.

John Krafcik, the newly hired president of the Google self-driving car project, did not mention any automakers by name. However, appearing at a media conference at the Detroit auto show, Krafcik surveyed a room packed with hundreds of auto industry executives and said: "We hope to work with many of you guys."

Google officials have said previously the Internet search company does not want to build vehicles, but instead supply the software and mapping to allow a car to safely navigate busy streets and highways.

"No one goes this alone," Krafcik said. "We are going to be partnering more and more and more." He said he hopes to form more alliances this year.

Google has worked with automotive suppliers and contract manufacturers to build a small fleet of prototype self-driving cars - small, light pod-cars that look nothing like the sport utility vehicles and pickups on display at the Detroit show.

Google, major global automakers and several auto technology companies such as Delphi Automotive, Continental and Mobileye are jockeying to define and lead development of vehicles that use machine vision, sophisticated maps and artificial intelligence to take over for error-prone human drivers.

Krafcik said he believed partially automating the operation of a car, requiring drivers to take command under certain conditions, can create safety problems, a key point on which Google and most automakers differ.

The car "has to shoulder the whole burden," he said.

Most automakers, including General Motors, Tesla Motors, Daimler, and Nissan Motor, are pushing to get cars on the road that allow hands-free driving under certain conditions, but require the driver to take over in more complex situations such as city driving.

Login with