First injury involving a Google car

Summer is supposedly the most dangerous time of the year to be on the road in the US. It’s not that Google's self-driving cars have...

Summer is supposedly the most dangerous time of the year to be on the road in the US. It’s not that Google's self-driving cars have never been involved in an accident, but the one that occurred on 1 July was the first one in which people got hurt. Fortunately, the injuries were minor, according to the company, and like the other 13 times that Google cars have had an incident since the project started in 2009, it was the fault of the driver in the other vehicle.

Chris Urmson, Head of the Google Self-driving Car Project, wrote in a blog post that the company's decked-out Lexus had stopped at an intersection in Mountain View, California (near the company’s HQ). It was rush hour and the roads were congested, so the car and two others in front couldn’t move even though the light was green, or they would have blocked the intersection. Another car coming up from behind did not notice the clog and rear-ended the Google car at 17mph, without even applying the brakes because the driver was purportedly not paying attention to the road.

Here is an animation released by Google, reenacting the incident:

The impact caused minor whiplash to the drivers in both cars. Although the Google car is capable of driving itself, the current law still requires a person – ie. a Google employee – to take the driver’s seat and take over in case of an emergency. The bumper of the car behind fell off and the Google car had some scrapes on its rear, but it was all insignificant enough that no police report was required.

Google took this as a sign that self-driving cars are exactly the way forward in preventing future road accidents. “…the clear theme is human error and inattention. We'll take all this as a signal that we're starting to compare favorably with human drivers," Urmson wrote.

Another incident last month backs Urmson’s claims. Two self-driving cars – one from rival Delphi Automotive and the other from Google - reportedly had a near miss but successfully avoided each other without human intervention. According to a spokesperson from Delphi, a Google car cut off the Delphi car that was starting to change lanes. The Delphi car “took appropriate action, as it is programmed to do” when it sensed the Google car and delayed its action until it was safe.

Up to now, the Google cars have travelled over 1 million miles in self-driving mode, without getting into many accidents, and those that it did were inconsequential; 11 of these collisions involved the Google cars being rear-ended. That’s got to be statistics in favour of self-driving technology. 


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