​Google Wanted To Keep Secrets About Its Self-Driving Cars

We've moved beyond the geewhizOMG phase of autonomous cars and into the dirty, nasty, contentious world of legislation and regulation. The California DMV has issued its rules that Google (and others) have to abide by, and with that fight over, now we know what the crew from Mountain View wanted to hide.

Google's director of safety for its self-driving car program, Ron Medford, sent a letter to the DMV regarding the final regulatory text of the State's autonomous vehicle testing guidelines. In it, Medford took issue with several of the regulations, one of which was the rule that passenger cars shouldn't be the only vehicles allowed to test under the rules (see: motorcycles). But he also argued "to limit required reporting to accidents involving vehicles operated in autonomous mode."

Basically, Medford argues that reporting incidents where one of its robocars is involved in a crash when a human is behind the wheel isn't useful. This seems perfectly reasonable considering Google's fleet of autonomous cars has only had one crash over 700,000 miles of testing, and that was when another driver hit them.

What doesn't sound reasonable is Google's desire to remove a section of the text about "disengagements", or when the car hands back control to the driver when it can't handle a specific task (no maps, weather, odd traffic scenario, etc.)

Quartz snagged the letter Google sent to the State, with Medford claiming that, "This data does not provide an effective barometer of vehicle safety. During testing most disengages occur for benign reasons, not to avoid an accident," and that as more features are added, the number of disengagements could increase. Additionally, if these disengagements are viewed as penalties, "test drivers may feel pressure to reduce the number of disengagements."

Google wasn't alone in opposing the reporting, with Chrysler, General Motors, Volkswagen, and Mercedes-Benz also questioned certain aspects of the disclosures. And Google is also concerned about the amount of data it would produce.

"An overly broad reporting requirement will create a significant burden on manufacturers. But it will also create a significant burden on DMV," Medford wrote. "…and will pose a particular challenge since DMV does not have the existing engineering expertise to interpret the data."

Pseudo-altruism aside, Google is also concerned about keeping it intellectual property safe, with Medford writing that, "This information is highly confidential, particularly during the testing phase before a product is brought to market. Public disclosure of this information could cause great financial harm to Google."

Sure, but public safety should trump financial harm (lulz), and limiting what's reported could be seen as simply a lie of omission. But as Quartz points out, there are still 46 other states that haven't passed autonomous vehicle testing rules, and Google, automakers, and suppliers could pack up and test elsewhere if the laws of one state don't match up with their own desires.