According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Highway Loss Data Institute, 42,939 drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and others died in 2021 across the U.S. and Puerto Rico as the result of 39,508 crashes involving 61,322 vehicles. The estimated national economic impact exceeded $340 billion.
Data from previous decades revealed fewer yearly crashes, vehicles and related deaths. Although the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent distractions and adverse events likely increased the 2021 numbers, experts believe an increase in the world population might lead to a pattern of ever-increasing crashes every year going forward.
That said, the rate of crash deaths out of 100,000 people remains low. In fact, the 2021 numbers were 39% lower than similar data in the 40 years prior. As a result, proponents of self-driving tech believe their vehicles will reduce overall yearly deaths and injuries, while offering convenience and other benefits.
Why is Self-Driving Tech So Important?
Many people, especially those living in cities, prefer public transportation over driving their own vehicles for cost, mental or physical health, and safety reasons. Yet, ride-hail or taxi and ride-share services have become overly expensive and risky in recent years.
States don’t allow many people with specific diseases and illnesses, such as some forms of epilepsy and vision loss, to drive motor vehicles. And, of course, plenty of former drivers no longer have licenses because of suspensions.
With self-driving technology, people allow an AI system to drive while they sit back and relax. The tech makes it possible for people to enjoy non-congested travel in a private vehicle with limited exposure to others while relaxing without the stresses of attempting to navigate various types of traffic. Some companies hope the technology can eventually replace delivery drivers as well.
What is Waymo’s Background?
In 2009, Google started the Google Self-Driving Car Project to create autonomous technology for vehicles on streets, highways and other open roads worldwide. In 2016, Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., rebranded the project and founded the company attached to it with the name Waymo LLC.
With corporate headquarters in Mountain View, California, Google primarily tests its vehicles and offers commercial “robo taxi” ride-hail services on the West Coast and in the Southwest. Users hail a driverless Waymo vehicle via an app.
Waymo also offers delivery vehicles and Class 8 tractor-trailers with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) that exceeds 33,000 lbs. Waymo uses LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors with laser pulses to measure distances and determine if anything is in a vehicle’s path.
Partners who believe in Waymo include AutoNation, Avis Car Rental, Intel Corporation, Jaguar Land Rover Automotive, Lyft, Mercedes-Benz Group AG, Stellantis and Volvo.
What is Cruise’s Background?
In 2013, Dan Kan and Kyle Vogt founded Cruise Automation to explore the creation of self-driving tech. In 2016, General Motors acquired the company, branded as Cruise LLC, and turned it into an independent subsidiary while keeping Kan and Vogt as senior directors.
With corporate headquarters in San Francisco, California, Cruise LLC primarily develops and tests its autonomous technologies on the West Coast via on-demand ride-hail taxis and delivery vehicles that use LiDAR sensors, lasers and tech similar to Waymo. It has received support from Honda Motor Company, Ltd., Microsoft Corporation, T Rowe Price Group, Inc., and Walmart.
Which Manufacturer Offers Safer Solutions?
Waymo and Cruise market their vehicles as safe. In its mission statement, Waymo uses “safe” to describe its autonomous technologies. Cruise uses the term “safer” in its statement.
Yet, no one knows which company presents the safest solution because both companies withhold safety data. In 2022, the California Department of Motor Vehicles released crash data reported with limits by the companies as a requirement by the CA DMV and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
According to The San Francisco Standard, Waymo vehicles experienced more crashes, but more people sustained injuries in Cruise crashes.
Both companies claim that previous crashes typically occurred because human drivers hit legally stopped self-driving vehicles. That said, complaints to officials by passengers and others in test cities often noted that Cruise vehicles stopped and blocked traffic at odd times and in illegal ways, such as by double parking in the middle of a street.
In December 2022, the NHTSA found that Cruise taxis sometimes “hard brake” at inappropriate times and stop moving or operating normally. Since 2021, the NHTSA has received more than 300 reports about Waymo, Cruise and other self-driving vehicle crashes. From mid-July to late August 2023, the NHTSA received 150 Waymo complaints and 78 Cruise complaints.
In October 2023, California suspended Cruise’s permits while the NHTSA and others investigate a report that GM and Cruise provided investigators and regulators with misinformation about a crash earlier in October that involved a car driven by a human hitting a female pedestrian, followed by a Cruise vehicle also hitting her.
Other reports indicate that Cruise vehicles often refuse to yield to pedestrians. As of this writing, the company can’t test or operate their vehicles as a service to the public.
These details make it clear that neither company offers a truly “safe” self-driving solution, which is why many regions only permit limited testing and usage at this time.