Google had a pretty bad Valentine’s Day this year. That’s because one of their self-driving cars, a Lexus RX450h, crashed into a bus. This is the first case of an autonomous car being involved in an accident and also sharing the fault. While Google’s cars have been involved in accidents before, this one is clearly the most severe.
Since the incident, they have released a monthly report in which they address the accident, among other things. Let’s take a look at what they had to say and examine the details of the crash itself.
The cause of the accident
Several weeks before the crash, Google updated the software of their self-driving cars so that they hug the rightmost side of the road when preparing to turn. They have done this because the car often slowed down traffic. The change was made with El Camino Real in mind, a wide boulevard where the self-driving cars do a lot of their driving. The accident also took place there.
By making the car adopt more of the “spirit of the road”, Google seems to also have made the car more susceptible to one of the most common causes of accidents that human drivers have to face: misunderstandings.
While the autonomous car was on the rightmost lane, preparing to turn right, it encountered some sandbags and stopped. After a few cars had passed, the Google car, still in autonomous mode, started moving towards the middle of the lane at about 2 mph.
A bus was also approaching from behind. The self-driving car knew this, but assumed, as did the test driver, that the bus would stop since it was behind. The bus driver thought that Google’s car would stop too, and since everyone thought wrong and no one stopped, they collided.
More about the crash itself
As neither car stopped, the self-driving car crashed into a side of the bus. Luckily, it wasn’t a serious accident. The autonomous Lexus was moving at 2 mph at most, and the bus at 15 mph at the time of contact. Google’s car smacked into the side of the bus and damaged its front fender, wheel and sensor in the process.
There were no injuries and, as Google has stated, these kinds of accidents happen on a daily basis. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the self-driving car shares some of the blame, since there would have been no accident if it would have stopped. This is the first case when one of Google’s cars is at fault in a clash.
Google’s statement about the accident
In the report, the people at Google said that the car did know about the bus and that the crash wasn’t the result of some sort of glitch. The main cause of the incident is that both sides made too many assumptions.
Drivers are constantly trying to guess what everyone else on the road is going to do, and often the wrong assumption can cause a crash. That being said, the autonomous car made a mistake that many real drivers often make.
They have also said that since the accident, they have ran many simulations and learned a great deal from the unfortunate event. The car’s software has also been updated to know that buses and other large vehicles are “less likely to yield”.
Google hopes that in future cases, their car will better know what to do and that it will handle the situation more gracefully.
The effect this will have on self-driving cars
The people working on the cars say that they have learned a lot from the accident and that Google’s cars will do better next time. While it’s true that we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes, the crash proves that autonomous cars still have a long way to go until they can be 100% safe to drive.
While Google’s image took a hit, the incident could also have a major impact when it will be time for the DMV to legalize autonomous cars. You can bet that the crash will come up then, and that it will hurt the technology’s chances of becoming commercially available.
The relationship between Google and the California DMV is already strained after the December release of some draft rules prohibiting autonomous cars that don’t have the option of manual driving.
Sadly, I feel like their goal to start selling self-driving cars by 2020 seems more and more like a pipe dream. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that safety is the primary concern for everyone, and that the dangers posed by autonomous cars are still mainly unknown, so I understand the DMV’s caution.
I’ll cover any new information that comes up on the matter, but until then, I’m interested in hearing your opinion, so leave me a comment with what you think will happen.