Google Autonomous Car Experiences Another Crash

The accident, which happened on July 1, is the first time a collision involving these cars has resulted in injuries to people.

by Vishal Mathur, Mint, New Delhi / July 17, 2015
Google confirmed it is testing its self-driving technology in Austin with two Lexus RX450h SUVs. The Texas Tribune

(TNS) -- Google has reported that one of its self-driving car prototypes was involved in an accident. And, this is the first time that an accident involving these cars has resulted in injuries to people. The accident happened on 1 July, but was made public by Chris Urmson, head of Google’s self-driving car program, in a blog post on Friday.

Google has invested heavily in the concept of self-driving cars. It believes that technology that allows a car to drive itself while monitoring multiple elements on the roads will be safer and more efficient than human drivers.

In the collision, a Lexus sports utility vehicle equipped with sensors and cameras was rear-ended at an intersection in the city of Mountain View, California. There were three Google employees on board at the time of the incident, and complained of minor whiplash. They were checked at a hospital and later released. The driver of the other vehicle also complained of neck and back pain.

This is the 14th accident that a Google self-driving vehicle has been involved in, since testing on public roads began in 2009, and 11 of these have been rear-enders, similar to the latest incident. But, this is the first time that injuries to humans have been reported. These vehicles have clocked 1.9 million miles of testing.

Will the latest accident slow down Google’s testing of self-driving cars?

The company currently has more than 20 prototype vehicles testing in its home city of Mountain View, and testing continues as per schedule.

Even though the vehicle may be driving and manoeuvring itself, the laws of California clearly state that a human must be behind the wheel of these self-driving cars, while they are being tested on public roads. This is to take control in case of an emergency.

Urmson writes, “Our self-driving cars are being hit surprisingly often by other drivers who are distracted and not paying attention to the road. That’s a big motivator for us. The most recent collision, during the evening rush hour on 1 July, is a perfect example. One of our Lexus vehicles was driving autonomously towards an intersection in Mountain View, California. 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 17mph?—?and it hadn’t braked at all.”

A video accompanies the blog post, which illustrates that the vehicle which crashed into Google’s car never attempted to even slow down. One of the possible reasons for this is that drivers tend to use their smartphones while driving. And it is not just phones; other gadgets such as the infotainment system in the car are often fiddled with while driving. All this leads to the driver taking his eyes off the road, and reduces the reaction time in case of an emergency. Read here

Considering the fact that the latest accident happened because of an inattentive driver, Google will have to devise a way of alerting such road users, for the duration when autonomous as well as human-driven vehicles co-exist on public roads. But, there is definitely an existential crisis for autonomous cars at the moment, which are working on a level different to humans in vehicles around them.

Many car makers such as Lexus, Volvo, Mercedes and Hyundai have also been implementing part-autonomous technology in their cars. These driver-assists generally deal with automatic braking in case the car’s sensors detect a danger and attention assistance if the car detects lane drifting or a different throttle response from the driver. And while it is definitely the way forward, there is still a long way to go before self-driving cars become fully relevant.

©2015 the Mint (New Delhi). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.