A Waymo self-driving car driving on the road.

Waymo’s plan to put fully self-driving test vehicles on public roads in Silicon Valley underscores how quickly the technology may be arriving. It also calls attention to the growing need for independent research to establish whether the technology is safe enough.

Moving too fast too soon—before people have the confidence that they’re not guinea pigs in some sort of experiment—is a big risk to the entire industry, auto experts and safety advocates say.

They stress that a serious crash tied to not-quite-ready driverless technology could compound public fears and set back real-world testing and the development of autonomous vehicles (AVs) for decades. 

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There were immediate repercussions last March when an Uber test vehicle struck and killed a woman in Arizona who was walking her bike across an unlit road. Arizona and Pennsylvania immediately revoked Uber’s permission to test on their roads. Pennsylvania later toughened its testing rules.

To ensure that new autonomous vehicle technology operates according to a set of common standards, AVs should undergo the same type of trials that pharmaceutical companies face when seeking approval from the Food and Drug Administration for a new drug, says Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

The government is best equipped to evaluate costs and benefits, he argues, while companies have more expertise about technology developments.

“Should we be permitting Waymo to deploy tens of thousands of automated vehicles on public roads without some public understanding of the cost-benefit model?” says Reimer, who runs MIT's Advanced Vehicle Technology Consortium, a forum of companies, industry groups, and researchers that includes Consumer Reports.

Last week Waymo became the first company to obtain a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test AVs without a driver inside on roads in certain areas of the state. 

Waymo vehicles with human backup drivers have been involved in 12 crashes in California so far this year, according to reports filed with the state DMV. Almost all of them have been low-speed fender-benders where the test car was struck by a human-driven vehicle. In Arizona, Waymo vehicles have been involved in two crashes so far this year. The police didn't fault the Waymo vehicle in either case. 

Experts Push Third-Party Checks

Automakers aren’t doing anything comparable to what the FDA does now, Reimer points out. He’s calling for a public-private partnership made up of those in the industry, independent researchers, and regulators to set standards and evaluate data from companies making AVs.

Reimer has proposed a plan under which companies would provide data that can be verified by independent researchers before states and the federal government give approval for any AVs.

Consumer Reports has recommended that testing data be shared with public and federal regulators, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and state governments, all of which are responsible for safety on the highways.

“The bigger picture is that self-driving technologies are moving really fast, and they have significant potential to improve safety and mobility,” says William Wallace, a policy analyst in Washington for Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports. “But we’re concerned that companies may be racing to be the first instead of racing to be the safest.” 

Phil Koopman, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University who specializes in testing automotive software, backs a similar concept. Regulators and automakers should be working toward a system where companies deploying new technology submit data to a third party that performs some sort of independent verification, he says. That’s the model used by industries with safety-critical missions, such as aviation and chemical plants, Koopman says.

“In every case, we’re relying on the designers to tell us that they did it right,” he says. “There are no external checks and balances. Waymo’s going to deploy these vehicles, and we’re basically taking their word for it that it’s safe.”

Relying on the Honor System

Regulators for now appear all too willing to take the industry’s word on safety claims, Reimer says.

Waymo said in an emailed statement that it has consulted with external experts in developing its safety program. It says it has consulted with both state and federal regulators as well as outside organizations like the Society of Automotive Engineers, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, and the American Center for Mobility, about developing guidance and standards about driverless-car technology.

“Waymo has been testing self-driving cars for almost a decade, and we have developed extensive knowledge and expertise in gathering data and designing tests to evaluate safe performance,” the company said. “Safety is the core of Waymo’s mission and everything we do, and we are committed to educating the public and working closely with policymakers to inform them about our technology and the rigorous process we’ve put in place to test it.”

The hands-off approach to self-driving cars has been underscored by the Transportation Department’s formal policies, which were updated earlier this year. Federal regulators say they don’t think regulation is the right approach to deal with quickly evolving technology. They’re relying on companies to submit reports that outline steps they have taken on their own to verify the cars are safe.

But these reports are voluntary, and only five companies have submitted them so far: Waymo, GM, Ford, Nvidia, and Nuro. Also, the reports have been criticized for providing very little data to demonstrate how companies are evaluating safety, such as how crashes and near-misses have declined over time, or detailing which factors are baked into computerized simulations.

Consumers Union has called for NHTSA to take a more active role in ensuring that automated vehicle technology is developed with safety in mind. The agency should ensure that companies don't oversell these capabilities, fail to appropriately communicate their limitations, or design systems without appropriate checks on foreseeable use and misuse, CU has said.

CU has also called on NHTSA to upgrade crash reporting to help safety investigations, and to set binding minimum standards to protect data security and the functioning of a car's electronics and software systems.

Legislation that has passed the House and is pending in the Senate would, for the most part, solidify the federal government’s hands-off approach. Lawmakers and regulators consistently say they want to do what they can to promote potentially life-saving technology, and they’re fearful that a heavy hand will seriously slow innovation.

Waymo self-driving car with passengers

Waymo’s Next Step

Waymo—owned by Alphabet, which is also the parent company of Google—claims its cars have tens of millions of miles of real-world testing validation and more than 3 billion miles of simulated driving to demonstrate safety. The company has continuous closed-track testing at a former Air Force base in Atwater, Calif., and it has been operating a limited self-driving shuttle service with real consumers in suburban Phoenix for about a year.

Still, all that testing is “a drop in the bucket” as far as what’s actually needed, says Sam Abuelsamid, a senior analyst with Navigant Research who tracks the industry. On average, drivers in the U.S. have a reportable accident every 500,000 miles, and serious or challenging situations occur even more frequently. That’s why companies need to run a lot more simulated miles, he says.

“Of course, this is only as good as the scenarios or models that are being simulated,” Abuelsamid says. “We have no information about exactly what Waymo is testing.”

California regulators began accepting applications for driverless test vehicles in April. They’re requiring companies to “verify” that their vehicles are capable of driving without a human operator. Companies also must confirm that vehicles have been tested in controlled conditions similar to where they're going to be used. Each company must carry $5 million in insurance (in total, not per vehicle) and notify local governments about their testing plans.

AV companies must also agree to continuously monitor their vehicles and provide two-way communications with any passengers. They must report any crashes to the California Department of Motor Vehicles within 10 days and submit an annual report on “disengagements”—situations where a human takes over or a driverless car shuts down to avoid a crash.

In its blog outlining the California testing program, Waymo says it will begin operating vehicles with employees inside, just not in the driver’s seat. That’s not very different from what it's doing in Arizona. Still, the California permit allows the company to run the cars without an employee in the vehicle to monitor what’s going on.

Waymo doesn’t have a timetable for when it will pull its employees and operate the vehicles in a truly driverless fashion. It hasn’t released any details about how many vehicles it plans to run in California.

It’s expected that the cars will be modified Chrysler Pacifica minivans—the same kind of vehicle Waymo is operating in Arizona, a spokesperson said. The company also plans to outfit some Jaguar I-Pace electric crossovers in the future. (The I-Pace is not yet on sale in the U.S.)

Arizona regulators say they aren’t aware of anything that would cause concern about Waymo’s safety on their public roads, the state Department of Transportation said in an email replying to Consumer Reports’ questions. The state doesn’t have any special reporting requirements, but it has found the companies it is working with to be “very open” about “progress in testing these new technologies,” the email said.