Google's Self-Driving Cars Collide 'Surprisingly Often'

Google’s self-driving cars are getting into accidents “surprisingly often.”

That’s the word from the head of Google’s driverless car program, Chris Urmson. However, here’s the surprising news: Mostly, they’re being hit by other drivers who are distracted and not paying attention to the road.

For instance, he described the most recent incident in a blog post:

One of our Lexus vehicles was driving autonomously towards an intersection in Mountain View, Calif. The light was green, but traffic was backed up on the far side, so three cars, including ours, braked and came to a stop so as not to get stuck in the middle of the intersection. After we’d stopped, a car slammed into the back of us at 17 mph—and it hadn’t braked at all.

In fact, other drivers have hit Google’s cars 14 times since the start of the project in 2009 (including 11 rear-enders): None of them were serious, but the clear emerging concern is human error and inattention on other drivers’ parts.

Google’s cars, with safety drivers aboard, are now self-driving a combined 10,000 miles per week, which is about what a typical American adult drives in a year.

“Our self-driving cars can pay attention to hundreds of objects at once, 360 degrees in all directions, and they never get tired, irritable or distracted,” Urmson said.

“People, on the other hand, ‘drive as if the world is a television show viewed on TiVo that can be paused in real time—one can duck out for a moment, grab a beer from the fridge, and come back to right where they left off without missing a beat’—to quote Sheila Klauer of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.”

And indeed, the self-driving concept appeals on so many levels. Imagine – the ability to get anywhere you want to go, without worrying about how many beverages you’ve had to drink, or how many text messages you would like to send. Imagine, a smart navigation system that never gets lost. A chauffeur who really has no interest in chatting away at you as you’re trying to get work done on your way to the office. A personal car service, without the need to tip the driver.

Yes, there are a lot of upsides. And until recently, the downsides were simply fears, really: An episode of HBO comedy Silicon Valley last year showed a main character being offered a lift in an autonomous vehicle; his initial tech-fueled delight gives way to terror as the car changes its destination seemingly on its own, and takes itself to be loaded into a shipping container bound for an island that straddles the International Date Line.

In a more plausible scenario, there’s the worry that these kinds of connected cars are most certainly a target for cyber-criminals. UK transport minister Claire Perry for instance warned that the risk of cyber-criminals hacking driverless cars and smart motorway systems warranted thorough review and parameters, like mandating that there is a qualified driver in the vehicle.

“The more we move to technologically assisted forms of transport – whether it’s smart motorways or driver-assisted vehicles – there is also a risk of, sort of, cyber-hacking if you like, so we’re mindful of that,” Perry said.

Cybercrime has yet to be proven out, but, if you like, we should be mindful of the others on the road as well, even if we’re not behind the wheel. It goes to show, even with a technology as advanced as autonomous vehicles, sometimes the most important concerns are the most common ones.

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