EVs & Mobility

This article was published on February 23, 2022

Court allows Waymo to keep ‘incident’ data under wraps, so what are they hiding?

Transparency what?


Court allows Waymo to keep ‘incident’ data under wraps, so what are they hiding?
Ioanna Lykiardopoulou
Story by

Ioanna Lykiardopoulou

Ioanna is a writer at SHIFT. She likes the transition from old to modern, and she's all about shifting perspectives. Ioanna is a writer at SHIFT. She likes the transition from old to modern, and she's all about shifting perspectives.

Being a passenger in a self-driving taxi sounds cool and all, but it can also be uncomfortable — and even terrifying. Sometimes robotaxis freak out and get confused

Wouldn’t you want to know what happened in those instances? Well, you can’t. At least, regarding Waymo. 

On Tuesday, the California Superior Court in Sacramento ruled that Alphabet’s Waymo can keep crucial safety and crash data about its autonomous vehicles secret.

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In January, Waymo sued the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), to prevent the agency from disclosing what it considers “trade secrets.”

According to the lawsuit, in October 2021, the DMV notified Waymo that an anonymous third party requested to view the company’s application for its autonomous vehicle deployment permit, along with email correspondence between Waymo and DMV. 

Waymo provided the DMV with redacted versions of the requested documents, to protect the company’s “proprietary and trade secret information.”

But this wasn’t enough for the unnamed requester, who challenged the redactions of the original. 

The DMV then advised the company to resolve the situation by suing… the DMV. And Waymo… won. 

What’s this super-secret information about?

Well, only crucial safety and crash data — nothing too important. 

Specifically, the company doesn’t want to disclose information about:

  • Analyses and technical assessments of collisions. 
  • Internal processes for “assessing, and if necessary, remediating the circumstances that were deemed to have led to certain collisions.” 
  • How and when Waymo’s vehicles will transition control to safety drivers, and the respective assessment of disengagement incidents.

Should Waymo withhold this information in the first place?

From a business point of view, I get it. By releasing information regarding its safety practices and technology, Waymo could give its competitors an edge. No company would want to disclose trade secrets, right? 

But there are also some ethical considerations. Shouldn’t this data be open to the public anyway

Here’s what a Waymo spokesperson said to TechCrunch

We will continue to openly share safety and other data on our autonomous driving technology and operations, while recognizing that detailed technical information we share with regulators is not always appropriate for sharing with the public.

Yes, Waymo’s website has safety reports and performance data, but none of those files include actual information about what really matters to passengers: what happens when the vehicle loses or gives up control, or even collides? 

It’s exactly this level of transparency that every AV company should aim for, especially since the technology is being tested on public streets with actual human passengers on board.

People are suspicious of autonomous vehicles and would still prefer a human driver over an AI. They will be difficult to sway if the risks are covered up.

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