Politics

Self-driving companies: Don’t measure us by ‘disengagements’

Why Waymo, Cruise and others hate a DMV report showing how often humans had to take the wheel.

A Cruise self-driving car pictured on San Francisco's Embarcadero

A Cruise self-driving car rolls along San Francisco's Embarcadero.

Photo: Andrej Sokolow/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

Like it does every year, the California DMV on Wednesday released a report on how often humans have to seize the wheel and take control of self-driving vehicles, also known as disengagements. And like they do every year, some autonomous vehicle companies complained, saying the disengagement numbers from 2019 painted an incomplete picture of their progress.

As questions swirl about self-driving vehicle safety, companies in the industry are extremely sensitive about their image. They fear reports that tell only part of the story — combined with news stories about individual accidents or fatal crashes, or incidents involving Teslas, which don't have self-driving tech — will signal to the public that their technology isn't nearly ready for mass adoption. Underlying their anxiety is the challenge they face not only to improve their systems and operate in a complex world, but build widespread confidence and buy-in, all while fending off competitors.

Get what matters in tech, in your inbox every morning. Sign up for Source Code.

"We appreciate what the California DMV was trying to do when creating this requirement, but the disengagement metric does not provide relevant insights into the capabilities of the Waymo Driver or distinguish its performance from others in the self-driving space," said Waymo, the Mountain View company spun off from Google, at the start of a seven-part Wednesday tweetstorm.

Waymo's disengagements last year fell to 109, or .076 per 1,000 miles driven. Its autonomous vehicles drove 1.45 million miles on California roads — half of the 2.9 million miles driven by the 60 companies that submitted reports to the DMV. The company pointed out in its tweets that most of its vehicles' real-world driving is done outside California, primarily in Phoenix.

Toyota Research Institute, whose California office is in Los Altos, had the highest number of disengagements: 2,946 in 1,817 miles driven. Other companies with the highest number of disengagements were Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America, with 2,053 in 14,238 miles driven, and Lyft, with 1,666 in 42,930 miles. Mercedes did not return a request for comment. Lyft said it would have no comment.

Toyota Research Institute, too, doesn't think much of the disengagement stats: "The data in the report is very limited and does not figure in the complexity of the driving environment," spokesperson Rick Bourgoise said. He noted that TRI's drivers are trained to disengage the AV mode any time they foresee an issue, such as a risk to pedestrians, even if the AV system is working just fine. "We are testing more features in more complicated scenarios, which results in more disengagements," he said. "Challenging tests are more valuable to our development process than just accumulating easy miles."

The DMV's reports include dates, who initiated the disengagement, where it occurred (such as street or freeway) and the reasons. Among the reasons cited by companies: potential software, hardware or data-recording issues, error in perception systems or an "erratically, recklessly or aggressively behaving road user."

General Motors' Cruise subsidiary couldn't wait until Wednesday to cry foul. It complained about disengagement reports as far back as last month.

Kyle Vogt, co-founder and chief technology officer of San Francisco-based Cruise, which had 68 disengagements in 831,000-plus miles, wrote in a blog post that disengagement data has "been used by the media and others to compare technology from different AV companies or as a proxy for commercial readiness." He added, "It's woefully inadequate for most uses beyond those of the DMV. The idea that disengagements give a meaningful signal about whether an AV is ready for commercial deployment is a myth."

Jason Levine, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Auto Safety, said this is one of the "rare instances" in which the advocacy group agrees with the self-driving industry. "It's not an illegitimate gripe to say this data as it's currently collected and published isn't particularly useful," he said in an interview. But he added, "There's nothing stopping them from going above and beyond to put out more info than required by California."

Raj Rajkumar, a self-driving vehicle expert and professor at Carnegie Mellon University, agreed the reports can be "extremely misleading," saying that "the number of disengagements is very dependent on the context in which the tests are carried out." He said it was "perverse" that "a company and its operators are incentivized to demonstrate 'progress' from year to year by lowering the number of disengagements … over time," which could cause them to be less cautious.

Get in touch with us: Share information securely with Protocol via encrypted Signal or WhatsApp message, at 415-214-4715 or through our anonymous SecureDrop.

Industry concern over the DMV report is no surprise given continuing questions about what it will take for self-driving cars to be declared ready for mass adoption, and the imperfect measures that may grab the public imagination. On Tuesday, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt loudly reminded anyone who was listening to a public hearing about a fatal 2018 crash in a Tesla that was on Autopilot that such drivers need to realize "they don't have driverless cars." The NTSB placed part of the blame on Tesla's Autopilot technology, which has some driver-assist features but is not fully autonomous.

Levine said data collection by the DMV and others will be key not only to determining federal standards for self-driving vehicles, but also to public perception of the technology. He said companies are touchy about information that's released to the public because, "When all this technology is jumbled together, people will jump to the conclusion that it's all the same. The worst actor is going to be the face of the industry, and that is bad for everybody."

Google’s latest plans for Chromecast are all about free TV

The company is in talks to add dozens of free linear channels to its newest streaming dongle.

Google launched its new Google TV service a year ago. Now, the company wants to add free TV channels to it.

Photo: Google

Google is looking to make its Chromecast streaming device more appealing to cord cutters. The company has plans to add free TV channels to Google TV, the Android-based smart TV platform that powers Chromecast as well as select smart TVs from companies including Sony and TCL, Protocol has learned.

To achieve this, Google has held talks with companies distributing so-called FAST (free, ad-supported streaming television) channels, according to multiple industry insiders. These channels have the look and feel of traditional linear TV networks, complete with ad breaks and on-screen graphics. Free streaming channels could launch on Google TV as early as this fall, but the company may also wait to announce the initiative in conjunction with its smart TV partners in early 2022.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

While it's easy to get lost in the operational and technical side of a transaction, it's important to remember the third component of a payment. That is, the human behind the screen.

Over the last two years, many retailers have seen the benefit of investing in new, flexible payments. Ones that reflect the changing lifestyles of younger spenders, who are increasingly holding onto their cash — despite reports to the contrary. This means it's more important than ever for merchants to take note of the latest payment innovations so they can tap into the savings of the COVID-19 generation.

Keep Reading Show less
Antoine Nougue,Checkout.com

Antoine Nougue is Head of Europe at Checkout.com. He works with ambitious enterprise businesses to help them scale and grow their operations through payment processing services. He is responsible for leading the European sales, customer success, engineering & implementation teams and is based out of London, U.K.

Protocol | Policy

Iris scans for food in Jordanian refugee camps

More than 80% of the refugees in Jordanian camps now use iris scans to pay for their groceries. Refugee advocates say this is a huge future privacy problem.

A refugee uses their iris to access their account.

Photo: KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP via Getty Images

Every day, tens of thousands of refugees in the two main camps in Jordan pay for their groceries and withdraw their cash not with a card, but with a scan of their eye.

Nowhere in the United States can someone pay for groceries with an iris scan (though the Department of Homeland Security is considering collecting iris scans from U.S. immigrants, and Clear uses iris scans to verify identities for paying customers at airports) — but in the Jordanian refugee camps, biometric scanners are an everyday sight at grocery stores and ATMs. More than 80% of the 33,000-plus refugees who receive cash assistance and (most of them Syrian) and live in these camps use the United Nations' Refugee Agency iris-scanning system, which verifies identity through eye scans in order to distribute cash and food refugee assistance. Refugees can opt out of the program, but verifying identity without it is so complex that most do not.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Protocol | China

Weibo is muzzling users for discussing a landmark #metoo case

A number of accounts have been suspended, even deleted, after voicing support for the plaintiff.

Photo: Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

As a Beijing court dismissed China's landmark sexual harassment case on Tuesday, Weibo censors acted to muzzle a number of accounts that voiced support for the accuser, or even simply discussed the trial beforehand.

In 2018, the plaintiff Zhou Xiaoxuan, better known by the nickname Xianzi, filed a high-profile #MeToo case against Zhu Jun, a renowned state broadcast show host. Zhou claimed that Zhu sexually harassed her while she was an intern on Zhu's show in 2014. Chinese web users have closely followed the civil suit, which has also drawn international media attention.

Keep Reading Show less
Shen Lu

Shen Lu is a reporter with Protocol | China. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New York Times and POLITICO, among other publications. She can be reached at shenlu@protocol.com.

Protocol | Enterprise

Take that, Slack: ServiceNow gets a little closer to Microsoft Teams

ServiceNow is expanding its decade-long partnership with Microsoft as both companies intensify their rivalry with Salesforce.

Microsoft and ServiceNow's "coopetition" is aimed at a higher goal: undermining Salesforce, which is fast becoming the main rival for both vendors.

Photo: Uwe Anspach/Getty Images

For ServiceNow, Microsoft is the lesser of two evils compared to Salesforce.

After ditching Slack for Teams following the Salesforce acquisition, ServiceNow is deepening its decade-long partnership with Microsoft, promising co-development of new products and fresh integration capabilities within Teams, it plans to announce Thursday.

Keep Reading Show less
Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Latest Stories