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Self-driving car firms reveal 2020 testing data: Cruise and Waymo improve, Apple stalls

The California Department of Motor Vehicles reveals how companies operating autonomous cars in the state are progressing.

Cruise self-driving car
Cruise did much better last year, but we're far from a true autonomous car.

California is the world capital of testing for self-driving cars. With its warm weather and deep technology connections rooted in Silicon Valley, companies flock to the state. And each year, the 55 companies with valid permits to conduct such tests must report back to the state government. On Tuesday, we learned what they all did with their time in 2020.

The biggest players in the space, Waymo and Cruise, improved their metrics in terms of disengagements per number of miles driven. A disengagement is when the human backup driver has to take over because the self-driving system fails in some way. Google sister company Waymo was one of the best with just 21 disengagements in total in 2020, or a hiccup every 30,000 miles or so. Waymo's total miles driven fell, however, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The company paused much of its operations last spring as the virus began to sweep across the US.

A Waymo representative reiterated to Roadshow the data doesn't provide a total picture of its operation, since it conducts more tests outside of California. The company has a large presence in Arizona and Michigan, for example, which affects a final disengagement rate. It also called on companies to share more data so the public has the best understanding it can when it comes to such a technology like autonomous vehicles.

Cruise, the company with hefty backing from General Motors, clocked more than double the number of miles its robocar went before a disengagement. The documents revealed 27 disengagements over 770,000 miles of testing in California, about 28,000 miles per problem. That's a major improvement: Cruise had far more failures in 2019, with disengagements occurring every 12,000 miles or so. A company spokesperson told Roadshow it's proud of its achievement and pointed out it didn't observe a single disengagement in the final three months of 2020.

As for Apple, it has a long way to go. Miles driven were way down from its peak in 2018 of 80,000 miles driven to just 18,805 miles on the clock, and the tech firm reported 130 disengagements over the fewer than 20,000 miles driven. With a calculator handy, that equals a problem every 145 miles, worse than 2019. But it's a vast improvement from 2018, when California data showed a disengagement nearly every mile of the 80,000 miles driven. The top dogs are leaps and bounds ahead of Cupertino, it seems.

Apple did not immediately return requests for comment.

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