Unfortunately for Google, the clean record of its autonomous cars has finally been soiled; on Valentines day, one of its transmission-, break-, and steering-wheel-free cars collided with a municipal bus.
The car was pulled over in preparation for a right turn and then stopped when sandbags near a storm drain showed up on its radar. It then attempted to reenter its previous lane when it came into contact with the previously mentioned bus.
According to Google, the car pulled to the side before making the right hand turn in order to mimic the way human drivers would have dealt with the sandbag situation. Google has been committed to testing a recent software update that would empower the cars to make such a maneuver given uncertain circumstances. The idea was to give the vehicles behind it the space and possibility to pass a Google car that’s preparing to make a turn. Accordingly, the car navigated back into the roadway assuming the bus, which was traveling in the same direction, had adequate time to yield and would choose to do so.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. And that’s how a Google car that was traveling at under 2 miles per hour hit a passing bus that was traveling at 15 miles per hour. According to the California DMV, the bus driver likely had about 3 seconds to respond to the car’s reentry attempt.
This is the first time that collisions involving Google’s autonomous cars were not at the fault of humans in other vehicles. The impact of the collision didn’t do much to the bus and only damaged the car’s front-left fender, front-left wheel and one of its sensors. However, the real impact may have been made to Google’s once spotless autonomous driving reputation.
Google’s cars have been on the road for years, but they only make basic media headlines when they’re involved in collisions. This does little to foster the public’s trust of such ground breaking and industry changing technology.
“Many people believe that their driving skills are better than others’ are,” explained Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “Thus, many folks would prefer to do it themselves versus letting an unknown machine take over. We’ve all experienced computer crashes, but a computer crash in an autonomous car would lead to a genuine life-threatening crash.”
The future of autonomous vehicles may have some kind of failsafe for situations like the one that occurred with the Google car and the bus driver, however. Some analysts believe that if the bus had also been manned by a machine, it might have noted the fault and reacted accordingly.
Before considering future circumstances, however, Google must face the pressing issue of how to react to the crash.
“It… brings up issues of liability and possible punishment fit got a TV sitcom,” stated Charles King, principal analyst for Pund-IT. “Who made the arrest? Robocop on traffic detail? What would a jury of peers consist of? Laptops, smartphones and tablets? If the accused is Android based, would it be fair for the judge to be an iPad?”