In a few weeks the California DMV will release disengagements data from Cruise and other companies who test AVs on public roads. This data is really great for giving the public a sense of what’s happening on the roads. Unfortunately, it has also been used by the media and others to compare technology from different AV companies or as a proxy for commercial readiness. Since it’s the only publicly available metric, I don’t really blame them for using it. But 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.
Our collective fixation on disengagements has been further fueled by the AV companies themselves. Many of them give demo rides that include a de facto story-line that goes something like, “I didn’t touch the wheel during this demo, therefore it works.” This is silly, and everyone knows it. It’s like judging a basketball team’s performance for the year based on how they looked during a practice session. Or winning a single spin of roulette and claiming you’ve beaten the house. A carefully curated and constrained demo ride is just the tip of the iceberg, and we all know what happens if we ignore what’s lurking below the surface.
The AV industry is in a trust race, so it’s important that we do things to build confidence in the technology. It’s certainly convincing to go on a ride where it seems the human is just there for show, or on rides where there’s no human present at all. So companies carefully curate demo routes, avoid urban areas with cyclists and pedestrians, constrain geofences and pickup/dropoff locations, and limit the kinds of maneuvers the AV will attempt during the ride — all in order to limit the number of disengagements. Because after all, an AV is only ready for primetime if it can do dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of these kinds of trips without a human touching the wheel. That’s the ultimate sign that the technology is ready, right? Wrong.
After extensive testing in complex urban environments, we’ve come to realize there’s a threshold of environmental complexity above which it’s nearly impossible for even a well-trained, attentive, and responsive human to avoid touching the wheel. Said another way, even if the AV was 100x better at driving than a human, rides through places like downtown SF will still regularly generate disengagements. As a result, disengagement-free driving is not actually a prerequisite for commercial deployment of AVs.
If an AV is functioning correctly, then why does the human take control? Sometimes things happen really quickly and sometimes there are many distinct but correct ways to handle a situation — each of these may lead to the human taking control of the AV out of caution. This would also be true if you secretly had a person driving an AV and told another person to supervise and take control if they ever felt the need. Have you ever been in the backseat of a human-driven car and felt the urge to grab the wheel when something crazy happens on the road? It’s exactly like that.
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SOURCE: General Motors