MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA – One of Google’s self-driving cars pulled out into traffic and crashed into a public bus. This was the first accident on record for one of Google’s self-driving cars.

There were no injuries attributed to the accident, but the incident shows that Google’s cars still have a ways to go, and according to one naysayer, “are not ready to deal with the many situations that arise in traffic everyday.”

Google filed a report with the California Department of Motor Vehicles that described its Lexus SUV as driving on February 14th in the city of Mountain View on El Camino Real and attempted to turn right onto Castro Street when the accident occurred. The SUV had drawn close to the curb trying to allow the cars behind it to continue straight ahead, but as the SUV pulled back into the middle of the lane in an effort to avoid sandbags that had been place around a drain, it smashed into a public bus belonging to the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

 The crash on Valentine’s Day was the ninth accident on record in the past year that involved a Google self-driving car. But this was the first incident where the car was at fault, according to a company spokesperson.

Google Car Hits Bus

Stacey Hendler Ross, spokesperson for The Valley Transportation Authority said this was a “multi-ton-bus and it’s pretty obvious that no one should pull out into a lane when a bus is approaching.” She went on to say, “A bus this size cannot stop on a dime.” Fortunately the 15 passengers riding the bus suffered no injuries. The mistake the car made was the result of a recent tweak of its software, according to Google in a monthly update on its self-driving cars.

“When you’re preparing for a right turn in a lane designed for two traffic streams, traffic will stack up behind you,” said the report. “Due to this we started giving our robot cars the ability to do what humans do, which is hug the right side of the lane. This is normal because vehicles preparing to turn right often pause for pedestrians; hugging the curb on the right allows other cars to proceed on their way since there is room to pass on the left. This is part of developing advanced skills for our self-driving cars, so they can obey the letter of the law, but at the same time adapt to the practicalities of the road.”

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The self-driving car did detect the bus approaching, but “assumed it would yield to it since the car was ahead of the bus,” Google said. The test driver who was onboard, whose job it is to take control and drive the car to prevent accidents, saw the bus in the rearview mirror and “expected it to slow down or stop” and therefore chose not to override the autonomous driving mode. “This kind of misunderstanding occurs among human drivers every day on the road,” explained Google.

Because police reports are not necessary for minor accidents, there was none filed, and that was fine by Mountain View police. According to Google, its car was only going about 2 mph, but the bus was travelling at about 15 mph when the crash happened.

There was damage on the left front wheel and fender of the Lexus RX 450h as well as to the driver-side sensor. The bus received very little damage, just a bent piece of metal inside the accordion pivot point that joins the two carriages of the bus, said Hendler Ross.

In the aftermath of the crash, John Simpson, an advocate at Consumer Watchdog, is calling for police reports to be mandatory when an accident occurs involving a Google self-driving car.

“For heaven’s sake they’re driving on our public streets and highways, using them for their laboratory, and that obligates them to put the interests of the public first,” said Simpson. “This shines a light on the truth about these cars, that they are no where near ready to deal with all the everyday situations that happen in traffic. Merging back into the middle of a lane ought to be done without sideswiping another vehicle, especially a bus.”

On the other hand, Bryant Walker Smith, who is a technology, risk, and mobility expert from Stanford University, who also works as an assistant professor teaching both engineering and law at the University of South Carolina, says that this accident is not significant in terms of the overall debate going on regarding self-driving cars.

“I’m not any more or less hopeful about this technology or the rate of progress after this collision,” Smith said. “It was inevitable that something like this would happen and it doesn’t change my opinion on the technology not having demonstrated that it is ready for a wide range of road and traffic conditions.”

Chris Urmson, a Google director admitted in a January 28th workshop given by the California DMV on the state’s draft of rules and regulations for robot cars, that Google’s cars are not ready for total autonomy. However Urmson said that Google is against a draft provision that bans robot cars without human drivers from any deployment or testing on roads in California.

Urmson said that Google is taking the position that it doesn’t really see much difference in a car being driven by a human driver that “can’t be trusted” and one being driven by no one at all.

The auto accident attorneys at O’Connor, Runckel & O’Malley have handled many cases involving auto and vehicle accidents over the course their careers. They are well known in the Bay area and highly respected among those in the legal community. We have offices in San Francisco, Sacramento and in Contra Costa County to serve clients across Northern California. We can put our knowledge and expertise to work helping you if you or someone you love has been in an automobile accident.

(Source: CC Times)

Published on behalf of O’Connor, Runckel & O’Malley LLP

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