Self-drive cars ‘still need human help’ according to California reports

Futuristic self-driving cars travelling along California roads have needed human intervention to stay safe, according to test reports.

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) released reports filed by seven companies given permission to test prototype vehicles in public which gave instances in which a driver had to take over because of technology problems or other safety concerns.

Experts in the technology said Google, whose cars drove the most by far, performed relatively well, but also cautioned that testing typically happened during good weather.

Other companies reported frequent instances in which the person required to be in the front seat just in case had to grab the wheel.

Nissan tested just 2,389km in public, but reported 106 cases where the driver had to take control.

The Japanese car maker has said it plans to have “commercially viable autonomous drive vehicles” by 2020.

Google said its cars needed human help 341 times over 682,000 miles.

In 11 of the 341 instances, Google said its cars would have been involved in a crash.

Chris Urmson, head of the company’s self-driving car project, said while the results were encouraging they also showed the technology had yet to reach his goal of not needing someone behind the wheel.

“We’re seeing lots of improvement. But it’s not quite ready yet. That’s why we test our vehicles with a steering wheel and pedals.”

The California Department of Motor Vehicles, which is writing new regulations for the technology, said it was still reviewing in the reports.

Google reported 272 cases in which the cars’ software or onboard sensors failed.

Though Google did not release detailed scenarios, the problems included issues with the self-driving cars seeing traffic lights, yielding to pedestrians or committing traffic offences.

There were also cases where intervention was needed because other drivers were reckless and several dozen instances of an “unwanted manoeuvre” by Google’s car.

Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina who closely follows self-driving car developments, said Google’s rate of potential collisions was “not terribly high, but certainly not trivial”.

He said it remained difficult to gauge how self-driving cars compared with accident rates among human drivers, since even the best data under-reported minor collisions that authorities were never told about.

While Google’s problem rate was “impressively low”, a trained safety driver should remain in the front seat, said Raj Rajkumar, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University who specialises in self-driving cars.


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