NHTSA says software can count as a driver

According to Google, its self-driving vehicles have 'disengaged' 272 times in the last 15 months, prompting a human driver to take control. This raises definite questions about whether or not software can be considered a 'driver.'

Santa Monica, California — February 10, 2016 — Does the software suite piloting an autonomous vehicle count as a driver? The US-based National Highway Traffic Safety Administration seems to think so, judging by recent comments made by Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx.

“We are taking great care to embrace innovations that can boost safety and improve efficiency on our roadways. Our interpretation that the self-driving computer system of a car could, in fact, be a driver is significant,” said Foxx. “But the burden remains on self-driving car manufacturers to prove that their vehicles meet rigorous federal safety standards.”

Non-profit advocacy group Consumer Watchdog doesn’t agree that the software itself can count as a driver. The organization pointed to Google’s own test data, whic they say demonstrates the need for a human driver who can take control when necessary.

“Google says its robot technology failed and handed over control to a human test driver 272 times and the driver was scared enough to take control 69 times,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project Director. “The robot cars simply cannot reliably deal with everyday real traffic situations. Without a driver, who do you call when the robots fail?”

Google, which logged 424,331 “self-driving” miles over the 15-month reporting period, said a human driver had to take over 341 times, an average of 22.7 times a month. The robot car technology failed 272 times and ceded control to the human driver; the driver felt compelled to intervene and take control 69 times, according to its “disengagement report” filed with the DMV.

Other testing companies, driving far fewer autonomous miles than Google, also reported substantial numbers of disengagements to the DMV. Bosch had 625 disengagements with 934.4 miles driven. Nissan with 1,485 miles driven had 106. Mercedes-Benz reported 1,031 with 1,738 miles driven. Delphi reported 405 disengagements with 16,662 miles. Volkswagen with 10,416 miles reported 260. Tesla claimed it had none, but did not say how many miles its drove. Among the reasons cited by Bosch were failures to detect traffic lights and heavy pedestrian traffic. Google’s robot technology quit 13 times because it couldn’t handle the weather conditions. Twenty-three times the driver took control because of reckless behavior by another driver, cyclist or pedestrian.

“What the disengagement reports show is that there are many everyday routine traffic situations with which the self-driving robot cars simply can’t cope, said Simpson. “Self-driving vehicles simply aren’t ready to safely manage many routine traffic situations without human intervention.”

You can read Google’s disengagement report at consumerwatchdog.org/resources/cadmvdisengagereport-dec.2015.pdf.


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