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Look what's making self-driving cars freak out

Patrick May, The Mercury News on

Published in Automotive News

Ready ... set ... drive (driverlessly)!

It's almost here: drive time with nobody behind the wheel. That will soon become legal on California roads for testing and eventually transporting the public for commercial purposes.

And the Golden State's brave new foray into autonomous vehicles starts a month from now.

Here's what's different this time: Driverless cars have been allowed on public roads for testing purposes since the fall of 2014, but rules required that a human safety monitor be seated behind the wheel, just in case.

Starting April 2, that human will be at a remote location, not physically in the driver's seat but able to virtually take over the steering when and if things go south. At some point in the future, that requirement is expected to go away.

Not everyone's thrilled with this fast-moving trend to test out driverless cars on our Bay Area roadways. As my colleague Ethan Baron points out, California's move was immediately attacked by Consumer Watchdog, which said the "disengagement reports" companies file with the DMV when human backup drivers have to take over show the technology isn't ready for remote control.

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"Operation of the vehicles from afar would transform the testing of autonomous cars into 'a deadly video game that threatens highway safety,' the consumer advocacy group said."

So what do these "disengagement reports" show? We decided to have a look.

First, from Car and Driver magazine, a caveat about these statistics that purportedly show how many close calls various car companies have had with their autonomous fleets. As writer Pete Bigelow explained in a story earlier this month, "the annual reports on autonomous testing in California required by the state's Department of Motor Vehicles are far from a perfect measure of any company's self-driving competence."

While they do provide a few new details on what led to the self-driving system being shut off by a concerned human operator, the reports provide a somewhat flawed picture when trying to compare one company's track record with another's.


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