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Uber’s self-driving cars still need near-constant human intervention

Written by Jaymin Shah

The dream for autonomous cars is that ultimately they will be able to drive themselves totally independently — without any human intervention whatsoever.

But leaked data shows that Uber’s self-driving car program still has a very long way to go until it gets there.

Recode has got its hands on internal data from the ride-hailing company’s autonomous car unit detailing everything from the distance their vehicles are driving every week to the number of “bad experiences” they have had.

One particularly startling statistic is that in the week ending March 8, the cars only travelled an average of 0.8 miles between each time a human driver had to take control, overriding the self-driving tech — otherwise known as a “disengagement.” (Self-driving car tests on commercial roads keep human drivers in the driver’s seat at all times.)

In other words, the cars can barely drive by themselves for a mile (on average) before a human has to step in for whatever reason. (This also doesn’t include “accidental disengagements, end-of-route disengagements and early takeovers.”)

The data starkly illustrates the differences between Uber and Google, and the latter’s far more mature self-driving car program. Waymo (the official name of Google parent company Alphabet’s self-driving company) cars are only being disengaged 0.2 times every thousand miles, according to data released in in February 2017.

To put that into perspective: Last week, Uber’s self-driving cars reportedly drove a combined 20,354 miles. With 0.8 miles (on average) between disengagements, this means human drivers took over roughly 16,000 times. Over a similar distance, Google/Waymo vehicles would only theoretically need to be taken over around four times.

Now, this comparison isn’t necessarily totally apples-to-apples. We don’t know whether the Waymo and Uber vehicles are driving in equivalent conditions. And just because the vehicle was disengaged, doesn’t necessarily mean an accident would have happened if a human hadn’t taken over. Those kind of disengagements — known as “critical” engagements — only happened every 200 miles, on average, significantly less (but still far more frequently than at Waymo).

Uber is also years behind Waymo, which kicked off its work in self-driving car technology way back in 2009. But the data nonetheless underscores Uber’s infancy in the field — and comes during a time of unprecedented difficulty for the company.

The company is being sued by Google over its self-driving program. Its head, Anthony Levandowski, is accused of stealing trade secrets from Waymo when he worked there. (Uber denies the allegations.) Over the last few weeks, Uber has been battered by negative news, from allegations of sexual harassment from a former employee, to a video of CEO Travis Kalanick losing his temper and berating an Uber driver, as well as consumer boycotts and revelations about a secret “Greyball” program the company used to deceive local authorities.

An Uber spokesperson did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.

About the author

Jaymin Shah

Jaymin Shah is a tech entrepreneur. He is the Founder & CEO of TechOptimals. He has made a name for himself in the tech media world as a writer relentlessly covering Technology, in addition to a broad range of startups. Contact Jaymin at jaymin@techoptimals.com

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