Chinese search engine giant Baidu reported the lowest rate of human driver intervention among companies testing autonomous vehicles (AVs) on California public roads, according to the latest batch of disengagement reports released by the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

Why it matters: This marks the first time in the report’s history that a Chinese company unseated Waymo, Google’s self-driving arm and an accepted industry leader, for the top spot.

  • California has required data reporting from companies for testing AVs on its public roads, including the number of miles driven autonomously and the number of times human drivers are required to take control of the vehicle, known as a disengagement.

Details: Baidu reported driving 108,300 miles and six disengagements with four vehicles last year, making for the lowest disengagement rate of all the companies listed in the California’s annual self-driving record: 0.055 per 1,000 self-driven miles.

  • Baidu’s number dropped significantly from a year ago when it rated 4.86 per 1,000 self-driven miles, which the company attributed to rapid expansion in testing fields over the past three years.
  • Waymo again reported the greatest number of miles driven by its 153 robocars, covering 1.45 million miles in California last year. It had one disengagement every 13,219 miles, versus Baidu’s one every 18,050 miles.
  • In unusually strident language, Waymo posted a series of tweets on Wednesday questioning if the disengagement metric leads to meaningful insights, adding that its real-world driving experience takes place mostly outside of California.
  • The AV leader said in December that it has more than 1,500 monthly active riders for its robotaxi pilot project Waymo One in Phoenix, Ariz. and surrounding areas.
  • Doubts about the credibility of the metric are increasingly being voiced, as it is not mandatory for companies to report testing environments, which can vary from downtown traffic to empty highways.
  • Executives from companies including General Motors-backed Cruise have expressed views that the metric has little value when there is no clear definition of what constitutes a disengagement.
  • Disengagement data has been accepted as a barometer to compare AV companies and assess the commercial readiness of self-driving cars, and is often cited as evidence of Waymo’s leadership.
  • In a statement sent to TechNode on Friday, Baidu said disengagement rate is an internal reflection of the speed of technical iterations, but comparison between companies is “not that meaningful.”

Context: Apart from Baidu, four Chinese companies were among the top 10 on the report in terms of disengagement frequency.

  • Alibaba-backed AutoX reported one disengagement every 10,684 miles, ranking fourth, followed by Guangzhou-based Pony.ai with one disengagement every 6,475 miles.
  • Didi broke into the top 10 for the first time with one disengagement every 1,535 miles, as did PlusAI, a self-driving truck developer which had one disengagement every 940 miles.
  • Guangzhou-based WeRide drove 5,917 miles with one disengagement every 152 miles. COO Zhang Li said it has shifted road testing to China, where its fleet of more than 100 robocars drove more than 1.1 million kilometers (around 683,000 miles) and offered more than 8,300 rides within a ride-hailing pilot project as of last year.

Jill Shen

Jill Shen is Shanghai-based technology reporter. She covers Chinese mobility, autonomous vehicles, and electric cars. Connect with her via e-mail: jill.shen@technode.com or Twitter: @yushan_shen

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