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Alphabet's Waymo sharpens self-driving car tech, expands testing lead over rivals like Apple

Even as Apple tests remain shrouded in secrecy, prototype self-driving cars by Waymo — formerly under Google — are dramatically improving their skills, data from the California Department of Motor Vehicles revealed on Wednesday.

While Waymo's test fleet in the state drove 635,868 miles in 2016, 50 percent more than in 2015, safety-based disengagements fell from 0.8 per 1,000 miles to just 0.2, something highlighted by Waymo's head of self-driving technology, Dimitri Dolgov. The executive credited progress to a "more capable and mature" mix of hardware and software, and operating on "complex urban or suburban streets," helping to build experience dealing with complicated situations.

In all Waymo dealt with 124 disengagements. The company blamed most of these on "software glitches," but "unwanted maneuvers," "perception discrepancies," and "recklessly behaving road users" also played a part.

Crucially, in no case did Waymo cars crash or otherwise get into an accident.

Waymo is believed to be well ahead of its rivals in testing self-driving cars, having kickstarted the modern rush by showing the technology could work. The company is transitioning away from self-designed test vehicles and should soon deploy modified Chrysler Pacifica minivans.

Apple has expressed interest in testing a car on public roads, but is thought to have temporarily shelved the idea of designing its own vehicle until late 2017, if ever. The company could choose to partner with an existing automaker for its self-driving efforts, known as "Project Titan."

In the meantime Apple is thought to be testing systems in virtual reality, and experimenting with augmented reality for purposes like navigation.