How much information should self-driving technology companies be required to divulge about the safe operation of their vehicles? That question lies at the heart of a lawsuit Waymo filed last week against the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
Waymo, the commercial descendant of Google’s self-driving car project, said in court filings that the DMV may soon make information it considers trade secrets and confidential business data available to the public.
Among other items, the information includes details on how Waymo’s vehicles might respond in emergency situations and how they could react should they find themselves operating outside their intended geographic realms.
The lawsuit, filed in California Superior Court in Sacramento, arises from specific information contained in Waymo’s application for a permit allowing the company to deploy autonomous vehicles. That permit was granted in January 2021.
In October, an unknown person or entity requested a copy of Waymo’s application under the state’s public records law. The DMV initially provided the information with sensitive portions redacted. When the requester challenged the redactions, the DMV notified Waymo it intended to release the information.
The lawsuit was first reported by the Los Angeles Times.
It comes as Waymo prepares to compete with rivals such as Cruise and Zoox in the robotaxi field, with San Francisco as a key market where all three extensively test vehicles today. None offers commercial driverless service in the area, and Cruise hit a snag late last year when the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency contested the company’s application for a driverless deployment from another key regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission.
Waymo’s permit with the California DMV includes “information about how the autonomous vehicle identifies and navigates through certain conditions,” according to the court filing, as well as proprietary data on “internal processes for assessing and, if necessary, remediating the circumstances that were deemed to have led to certain collisions.”
On Friday, DMV officials said they were reviewing the complaint but would not “comment on active litigation.”
The case weighs whether the department or Waymo itself may decide what information should be released. Further, it pits the public’s right to better understand the safety and engineering underpinnings of autonomous vehicles vs. the company’s interests in protecting what it considers trade secrets and confidential information.
Waymo seeks both a temporary injunction preventing the release of the materials as well as a permanent injunction barring the public release.
Waymo has driven more than 20 million miles on public roads since its inception and issued a series of research reports on how it approaches automated vehicle safety, including utilizing real-world crashes to teach its vehicles how to respond to extremely rare scenarios, known as edge cases, in simulated environments.
“Every autonomous vehicle company has an obligation to demonstrate the safety of its technology, which is why we’ve transparently and consistently shared data on our safety readiness with the public,” a company spokesman said. “We will continue to work with the DMV to determine what is appropriate for us to share publicly and hope to find a resolution soon.”