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Vehicle Accident Involving Google Self-Driving Car Highlights Several Issues

In a monthly report on February 29 to California regulators, Google disclosed that one of its self-driving cars hit a city bus in Mountain View. Google's description of the accident on February 14:

"... our vehicle was driving autonomously and had pulled toward the right-hand curb to prepare for a right turn. It then detected sandbags near a storm drain blocking its path, so it needed to come to a stop. After waiting for some other vehicles to pass, our vehicle, still in autonomous mode, began angling back toward the center of the lane at around 2 mph -- and made contact with the side of a passing bus traveling at 15 mph. Our car had detected the approaching bus, but predicted that it would yield to us because we were ahead of it..."

A human test driver was in the Google self-driving car while it was operating in autonomous mode. Nobody was hurt in the accident, and 15 bus passengers were transferred to another bus. The Google car sustained damage to its left front fender, left front wheel, and one driver's side sensor.

The company operates 23 self-driving Lexus RX450h SUVs on public streets. That includes 14 vehicles in Mountain View (California), 8 in Austin (Texas), and one in Kirkland (Washington). It also operates 33 self-driving prototypes in public city streets: 26 in Mountain View, and 7 in Austin. The cars have driven about 1.5 million miles in autonomous mode, and about one million miles in human-driver mode. There have been more than a dozen accidents; mostly where Google vehicles were rear ended by other vehicles. The first injury accident was in July last year when several employees suffered whiplash when their Google vehicle was rear ended by a human-driven vehicle.

Google admitted that it bore some responsibility in this accident:

"In this case, we clearly bear some responsibility, because if our car hadn’t moved there wouldn’t have been a collision. That said, our test driver believed the bus was going to slow or stop to allow us to merge into the traffic, and that there would be sufficient space to do that. We’ve now reviewed this incident (and thousands of variations on it) in our simulator in detail and made refinements to our software. Our cars will more deeply understand that buses and other large vehicles are less likely to yield to us than other types of vehicles, and we hope to handle situations like this more gracefully in the future."

Reportedly, this would be the first accident where a self-driving car operating in autonomous mode is at fault. Many experts predict that insurance for self-driving cars will be lower than insurance for human-driven cars. Besides ethical dilemmas, accidents involving self-driving cars highlight unresolved liability issues. The Guardian UK explained:

"Hilary Rowen, a partner at the insurance regulation practice Sedgwick LLP and an expert in the issue of self-driving cars and legal responsibility, said the case is a good example of a conundrum that will soon be common. “Here, the software didn’t avoid the accident, but the human could have taken over,” she said. “Who’s at fault – the driver, the bus driver, or the software? Rowen said in real world situations, both the driver and injured party will actually be incentivized to blame the software which, if found to be guilty, will leave the driver’s record clear and likely have a higher payout for the injured party."

It is good that the company is transparent and forthcoming with accident reports. The accident also highlights the state of the self-driving or robotic software for vehicles. It's not ready yet for every-day operation. You can bet that when the software is ready a lot of drivers for ride-sharing services and taxi companies will find themselves quickly out of work. View the February 2016 Google Self-Driving Car Report (Adbobe PDF).

What are your opinions of the accident? Of the liability issue?

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