March 2, 2016

Disaster Strikes for Google’s Self-Driving Car, Or Not?

The fleet of Google self-driving cars. Photo courtesy of AutoToday.
By Nick K.

This was a sad day for both Google and their self-driving car project, for news broke about Google’s self-driving car “partially causing" a minor accident that occurred February 14, 2016, while it was venturing through the streets of Mountain View, California. 

It seems that autonomous machines do make mistakes after all. But hey, perhaps practice makes perfect?

Before we rev up the blame Google’s self-driving car, let us look at some background information about the self-driving car fleet. Believe it or not, Google’s self-driving cars have only been involved in less than 20 accidents with over 1.4 million miles tested, and none of the accidents being the self-driving cars' fault.

Now, there are currently over 50 self-driving cars being tested, and one self-driving car is partially at fault for the most recent incident. So, overall, the self-driving car is still a very safe driver, perhaps even better than a vast majority of drivers on the road today, considering how many accidents occur on a daily basis because of human drivers.

It is important to note that before this accident occurred, Google had installed a new software update to the self-driving car fleet, which allowed the vehicles to make more efficient right-handed turns, by hugging the right side of the road and allowing cars behind it to pass smoothly. 

That aside, like all car accidents, both parties involved are partially at fault. In this current case with the self-driving accident. It appears there was 
some sort of miscommunication with the self-driving car and the surrounding traffic.

What Exactly Happened?

The self-driving car was in the right lane and going to be making a right turn at an intersection when the car noticed there was a road hazard in the right lane. So, like the self-driving car was programmed to do, it did some evasive maneuvers to avoid the hazard and switched to the middle lane. Unfortunately, there was a city bus that did not allow the self-driving car to enter the center lane safely. As a result, the Google self-driving car bumped into the bus.

Google's self-driving car in action. Photo courtesy of HNGN

It is easy to assume here that the self-driving cars are bad drivers. In the reality of it, the self-driving car does not have the ability to think much like our human minds can. The self-driving car only responds to what it is programmed to. A more complex algorithm is necessary to handle two hazardous stimuli at once, such as an accident and a less-than-generous driver on the other.

In this situation, both the self-driving car and supervisor sitting in the self-driving car figured the bus would be considerate enough to let the car into the center lane by slowing down and yielding to it instead of bypassing it only to sit at a red light.

Sounds like a familiar story for almost every driver, right?

If you would like to read the full DMV report on the Google self-driving car accident, you can check it out here.

Moving Forward
This minor incident could have been prevented very easily. True to form, Google has taken action almost immediately by adding a software update to its self-driving car fleet which will allow the cars to further adjust their driving style when dealing with larger vehicles like buses, tractor trailers, and service vehicles.

In a way, this is a great thing to happen both for Google and the community. Sure accidents are no fun, but at least it was minor and there were no serious injuries.
Google is not thrilled about being partially responsible for car accidents, but they do plan on handling these types of situations more gracefully and in no way would ever want to harm others.

In addition, this is exactly why Google keeps on testing their self-driving cars and are trying to move forward in creating the perfect self-driving car to go on the market. There will be plenty of bumps in the road along the way, but this minor accident will raise many questions about how the car can handle society, in the future.

Do you think the Google self-driving car is at fault? Please feel free to let us know in the comments below. 

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