Self-driving cars promise to change cities, mint billionaires, and push robots into the everyday lives of millions of people. The only problem is, no one knows quite when or how. And with all the research and development locked up inside private companies, the public has little information to judge the progress of the technology, aside from the occasional PR reveal or disaster.
We have one (imperfect) yardstick, however: the numbers that the California Department of Motor Vehicles requires that any company testing an autonomous vehicle in the state file every month. Those are rolled up and released in January of each year. Though people in the industry don’t like what they see as the uneven comparisons between companies, this is the best we’ve got. The data include two primary numbers: the number of autonomous miles driven, which gives a rough indication of the scale of a program in the state, and the number of disengagements, or when a human driver takes over for the computer.
For every year of these disclosures, Waymo, the self-driving-car project within Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has been the leader by a wide margin.
The year 2018 was no different. Waymo drove 1.2 million miles in the state, which is not even its primary testing ground. Its cars disengaged 114 times, for a rate of 0.09 disengagements per 1,000 miles. That’s down from 0.18 in 2017. GM Cruise cemented its position as the key challenger to Waymo supremacy, logging nearly 448,000 miles with 162 disengagements, for a rate of 0.19 per 1,000 miles, and that’s on San Francisco’s difficult streets, a fact that GM Cruise’s Kyle Vogt is fond of pointing out. Together, the two companies’ cars drove 86 percent of the autonomous miles in the state.