Google bears “some responsibility” for crash

Last November, Google said that throughout the six years that it had been working on self-driving cars and the more than two million miles test driven, there had only been 17 accidents – minor ones, at that – and not once was it the fault of its autonomous cars. Well, that was then.

On 14 February, one of Google’s self-driving car collided with a municipal bus and the company is admitting that it bears “some responsibility”. The self-driving Lexus RX450h had detected sandbags on the road ahead, and stopped to wait for a clearing in the next lane. As the light turned green and traffic began moving, a city bus was advancing in the next lane; the Google car assumed that the bus would slow down to make way for it. Well, the bus driver thought that the car would stay put and just kept going. The Google car cut into the lane and hit the side of the bus. It was not a major collision as the car was moving at just 2mph and the bus was travelling at 15mph, and none of the passengers in the car nor the bus was injured.

Of course, naysayers were quick to jump at the chance to point out the dangers of self-driving technology. Reuters quoted John M. Simpson from the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, who said that the incident “is more proof that robot car technology is not ready for auto pilot”. Well, Mr Simpson, if misjudging that another car will slow down is proof that the robot car is not fit to be set free on the road, then most drivers aren’t either. We’ve all made that kind of error, once or twice, and often with more drastic consequences.

The search engine leader also said that there would have been sufficient space for the car to merge into the adjacent lane’s traffic, had the bus slowed or stopped.

While speaking at the SXSW festival last week, Chris Urmson (below), head of Google’s self-driving project, said that that Valentine’s Day was “a tough day” for them. Following the collision, the team had executed 3,500 new tests to “make sure this won’t happen again”. However, Urmson does not deny that similar accidents – or worse ones – could happen again…while humans are still allowed to control the vehicles.

The incident comes as Google is making the case for testing the autonomous cars without steering wheels or other controls, or requiring a licensed human driver to be in the car to take over if need be. The California Department of Motor Vehicles is reviewing the crash, and Google’s testing permit could be revoked if the department finds that the autonomous vehicles post unreasonable risk to the public. We hope the DMV is not such a Luddite that it would actually do that; after all, if it had been a human driver which had collided with that bus, no one would even blink twice.

Of course, Google will have to design the autonomous vehicle to predict the unpredictable – human behaviour, like not slowing down when it can or should. The company realises that, and wrote in the self-driving report that month: “It’s vital for us to develop advanced skills that respect not just the letter of the traffic code but the spirit of the road.”

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