By Kim Smiley
On February 14, 2016, the self-driving Google car was involved in a fender bender with a bus in Mountain View, California. Both vehicles were moving slowly at the time and the accident resulted in only minor damage and no injuries. While this accident may not seem like a very big deal, the collision is making headlines because it is the first time one of Google’s self-driving cars has contributed to an accident. Google’s self-driving cars have been involved in 17 other fender benders, but each of the previous accidents was attributed to the actions of a person, either the drivers of other vehicles or the Google test driver (while they were controlling the Google car).
The accident in question occurred after the Google car found itself in a tricky driving situation while attempting to merge. The Google car had moved over to the right lane in anticipation of making a right turn. Sandbags had been stacked around a storm drain, blocking part of the right lane. The Google car stopped and waited for the lane next to it to clear so that it could drive around the obstacle. As the Google car moved into the next lane it bumped a bus that was coming up from behind it. Both the driver of the bus and the Google car assumed that the other vehicle would yield. The test driver in the Google car did not take control of the vehicle and prevent the car from moving into the lane because he also assumed the bus would slow down and allow the car to merge into traffic. (Click on “Download PDF” to view a Cause Map that visually lays out the causes that contributed to this accident.)
Thankfully, this collision was a relatively minor accident. No one was hurt and there was only relatively minor damage to the vehicles involved. Lessons learned from this accident are already being incorporated to help prevent a similar incident in the future. Google has stated that the software that controls the self-driving cars has been tweaked so that the cars will recognize that buses and other large vehicles may be less likely to yield than other types of vehicles. (I wonder if there is a special taxi tweak in the code?)
It’s also worth noting that one of the driving factors behind the development of autonomous cars is the desire to improve traffic safety and reduce the 1.2 million traffic deaths that occur every year. The Google car may have contributed to this accident, but Google cars have so far generally proved to be very safe. Since 2009, Google cars have driven more than 2 million miles and have been involved in fewer than 20 accidents.
One of the more interesting facets of this accident is that it raises hard questions about liability. Who is responsible when a self-driving car causes a crash? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently determined that for regulatory purposes, autonomous vehicle software is a “driver” which may mean that auto manufacturers will assume greater legal responsibility for crashes. NHTSA is working to develop guidance for self-driving vehicles, which they plan to release by July, but nobody really knows yet the impact self-driving cars will have on liability laws and insurance policies. In addition to the technology issues, there are many legal and policy questions that will need to be answered before self-driving cars can become mainstream technology.
Personally, I am just hoping this technology is commercially available before I reach the age where my kids take away my car keys.