Now The Cars Drive Themselves… & Sometimes Crash!

The recent crash involving a Google self-driving car and a bus was “not a surprise”, the US transport secretary has said. Anthony Foxx told the BBC that accidents were inevitable when the cars drive themselves. Although, that the emerging technology should not be compared “against perfection”.

Nobody was hurt in the crash. But it was the first time Google’s onboard computer has been blamed for causing a collision. Secretary Foxx was attending the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas.
Announcing that seven US cities – Austin, Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland and San Francisco – had reached the final stage. That the competition to receive $40 million in government funding for “smart” technologies. Secretary Foxx agreeing that smart technologies could put some people out of work. By pointing out that when the cars drive all by themselves. This will present a lot of potential for disruption on some fronts. “It’s unclear to me now exactly how that future unfolds.”

Secretary Foxx is leading efforts to bring self-driving cars to US roads. The Obama administration has committed $4bn to that goal. Which includes attempts to develop standardized regulations for autonomous autos across the entire country.

On the public perception of self-driving cars following the February Google crash, he said: “It’s not a surprise that at some point, there would be a crash of any technology that’s on the road.
“But I would challenge one to look at the number of accidents that occurred on the same day that was the result of human behavior.”
“I think the question here isn’t comparing the automated car against perfection; I believe that it’s a relative comparison to what we have now on the roads which are you and me, and our eyeballs, and our brains.”

One challenge would be to tackle the legal issue of responsibility when crashes occur. Whether the passenger should be liable, or, given that the computer was driving. The companies behind the software that failed. “That’s precisely the type of question that we’re hoping, over the next several months, to provide feedback to both the states and the industry on.”

Google’s self-driving cars have been in accidents before, but always on the receiving end, at least, until now. The company has filed a California DMV accident report. That is confirming that one of its autonomous vehicles (a Lexus RX450h) collided with a bus in Mountain View. The crash happen when the robot SUV had to go into the center lane to make a right turn around some sand bags. Both the vehicle and its test driver incorrectly assuming that a bus approaching from behind would slow or stop to let the car through. The Lexus smacked into the side of the bus at low speed, damaging its front fender, wheel and sensor in the process.

It was a minor incident, and we’re happy to report that there were no injuries. However, this might be the first instance where one of Google’s self-driving cars caused an accident. If so, the Mountain View crew can no longer say it’s an innocent dove on the roads. While this wasn’t a glitch, its software made a decision that led to the crash. We’ve reached out to Google to see if it can elaborate on what happened.

No matter what the response, it was always going to be difficult to avoid this kind of incident when the cars drive themselves. Until self-driving cars can anticipate every possible road hazard. There’s always a chance that they’ll either be confusing or make choices with unsuspecting (and sometimes unfortunate) consequences. However, the hope at this early stage isn’t to achieve a flawless track record. Instead, it’s to show that self-driving cars can be safer overall than their human-piloted counterparts.

Update: Google has provided us with its take on the incident from its February monthly report. It sees the accident as the result of that “regular part of driving” where there’s mutual blame: both sides made too many assumptions. So yes, Google acknowledges that it’s partly at fault for what happened. In the wake of the crash, it has already tweaked its software to accept that buses are “less likely to yield”. Also preventing issues like this in the future. Yes, the cars drive by themselves, but you don’t necessarily have to be in one…yet.

 Crash or no cash?