In the four years since The New York Times’ John Markoff broke the story of Google’s self-driving car project, there’s been no shortage of articles extolling the company’s forward-thinking ingenuity and the technology’s alleged safety benefits. “Letting robots take the wheel would save lives,” asserts Vox’s Brad Plumer. Netscape founder and venture investor Marc Andreessen told the Times that within 20 years, “driving your car will be viewed as equivalently immoral as smoking cigarettes around other people is today.”
Yes, the cars seem safe—they’ve driven more than 700,000 miles in California without a serious accident. But what’s discussed far less often is Google’s campaign to constrain the conditions under which its self-driving cars are evaluated by regulators. In Nevada, the company carefully controlled the circumstances of an on-road driving test of its self-driving Prius in 2012. In California, it has tried to limit the amount of data it must report to regulators about the cars’ operation, and has even proposed that its cars be certified as safe using computer simulations rather than real-world tests.
In some cases—though not all—regulators have seemed happy to let Google do things its own way.
We know a lot more about all of this thanks to recent reporting by Mark Harris, a freelance technology and science journalist based in Seattle. In a series of recent freelance articles for Quartz, The Guardian, The Economist, and IEEE Spectrum, Harris—a Knight Science Journalism Fellow in 2013-14—has used state records obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests to shed light on Google’s interactions with Department of Motor Vehicle officials in California and Nevada, the two states that have gone the farthest to embrace autonomous vehicle technology.
At IEEE Spectrum last week, Harris shared details of e-mails and driving logs showing that Google chose the test route and determined the road and weather conditions for a May 2012 driving test in Las Vegas with Nevada DMV officials. The records also showed that the car switched twice from autonomous into manual mode when it ran into difficulties. In one instance, the car braked to a halt when encountering a road partially blocked off my construction work, requiring the Google engineer in the driver’s seat to take over. The Nevada DMV later issued Google the nation’s first self-driving vehicle testing license.
For The Guardian, Harris reported on a 2014 letter to California state officials in which Ron Medford, the safety director for Google’s self-driving car program, proposed that state regulators attempting to certify the cars’ safety accept the results of computer simulations in place of tests on private tracks or closed public roads. “Computer simulations are actually more valuable, as they allow manufacturers to test their software under far more conditions and stresses than could possibly be achieved on a test track,” Medford argued. As Harris wrote for Quartz, Google is also trying to persuade California that it doesn’t need to see reports on “disengagement” events, when the cars hand control back to human drivers. (So far the California DMV hasn’t bent its own rules for Google.)
Of course, there’s nothing new about a manufacturer or a systems developer lobbying to minimize regulatory and reporting burdens. What’s interesting is that Google is asking for exemptions at such an early stage in the development of autonomous vehicle technology—before it’s clear who will be the main users of self-driving cars or how they’ll fit into existing legal frameworks.
What is clear, of course, is that states where regulators are hostile to Google and other companies developing self-driving cars stand far less chance of benefiting from the innovations economically.
I interviewed Harris last week by e-mail about the reporting methods behind his recent run of exposés.
Wade Roush: When and how did you get the idea to submit FOIA requests for state records relating to testing of Google’s self-driving cars?
Mark Harris: Having Stephen Engelberg from ProPublica come talk to us as part of the KSJ program opened my eyes to some of the possibilities of a more methodical, data-based approach to journalism. When I left the program and was talking with an editor about taking a fresh approach to Google’s self-driving cars, the idea struck me to sidestep Google’s secretive PR machine and instead focus on who Google must have talked with to get their cars running on public roads. My strategy really wrote itself from that point on.
WR: How long did it take to get the documents you were seeking? Were the states generally cooperative or truculent?
MH: I wrote a bunch of FOIA requests, maybe 8 or 10, with the help of template letters that I found very easily online (each state requires a slightly different wording). It was a pretty straightforward process. More difficult, surprisingly, was finding exactly which agency or department in each state to send them to. Some states, and some agencies, were much more helpful than others, but all responded eventually. The quickest took around 2 weeks, the longest about 6. Some officials were extremely helpful – one even highlighted some files that he thought was interesting. Others were less so, and bear in mind that a few reserve the right to charge a per page or per hour fee for research – it’s worth saying up front if you haven’t got a budget for this. (I’m a freelancer, so I didn’t). A few said that they had no responsive documents, even though I suspected they may have – in this case, I probably worded my request too vaguely or too specifically.
WR: Do you think Google is basically getting a pass from states like California and Nevada that are eager to play host to Google’s vaunted innovation machine?
MH: Absolutely. These early states rolled out the red carpet for Google with the expectation that they would reap economic benefits in the future. Nevada, in particular, accepted a lot of input from Google in formulating their regulations for autonomous vehicles. Interestingly, Google has not done any large-scale testing in the state since, and even failed to renew the license plates for its self-driving cars.
WR: What would you tell other technology, business, and innovation writers about the value of FOIA requests?
MH: Get stuck in! There’s a very low barrier to entry and the results can be fantastic. However, you should be prepared for a significant failure rate – I’ve tried three or four similar bursts of FOIA activity on other subjects and have had little success.
Follow Mark Harris at @meharris