Driverless car failure data reveals extent of human intervention

Car manufacturers in California testing autonomous vehicles hand over disengagement reports showing how often humans had to take the wheel.  

13th January 2016
​The two-seater prototype of Google's self-driving car (© LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group/TNS via Getty Images)

The two-seater prototype of Google's self-driving car (© LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group/TNS via Getty Images)

How comfortable do you think you would feel freeing your hands of the wheel in a driverless car? We gave Tesla’s Autopilot a test and felt pretty happy with the whole experience, but car manufacturers testing autonomous cars in California are required by law to provide a report detailing every time a human intervention was required, and the results might give you pause for thought.

Currently there are seven companies testing driverless vehicles on the streets of the Golden State, and if you fancy dipping your toes into the thrilling world of vehicle safety reports then check out the links below, but to there is quite a varied selection of disengagements (when the human test driver takes control) to mull over. These range poor weather conditions, unclear lane markings, software anomalies or just the driver being generally uncomfortable (presumably about safety rather than poor seating arrangement).

The two most high profile of the seven are Google and Tesla, whose reports could not be more varied. Google travelled 424,331 miles on public roads by the end of November 2015 and measured 272 disengagements, of which 69 were initiated for safety where without human intervention there would significant risk of contact with another vehicle or the environment. Tesla on the other hand reported “zero” disengagements.

So should we be worried about the amount of times a human has to take the wheel of an autonomous car? At this stage no. As with any new technology, especially one with such a significant impact on human safety, it is important to collect as much data as possible, which Google recognise in their report, saying “disengagements are a critical part of the testing process that allows our engineers to expand the software’s capabilities and identify areas of improvement.”

So it might be a while before Tesla chief Elon Musk fulfils his dream of a car travelling from one side of the country to the other without a driver, but we’re on the right track.

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