Google's driverless car just caused its first crash

Autonomous vehicles have much to learn about the social conventions of the road.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 01 Mar 2016

It was only a matter of time. One of Google’s driverless cars caused its first crash on Valentine’s Day, though no hearts – or bones – were broken in the incident, you'll be pleased to know.

The incident itself was fairly innocuous as far as road accidents go. A report filed with California's department of motor vehicles said that Google's car had noted a bus approaching from behind but the test driver assumed it would stop or slow to avoid the car as it tried to get around sand bags in its path. It didn't.

The car was driving at 2mph in its autonomous mode so it wasn’t so much a high-speed crash as a slow-motion one. But it has stirred up more discussion than your run-of-the-mill incident. While its cars have been in accidents before, Google’s tech was never at fault. An investigation into liability here is pending. While the company said it clearly bore 'some responsibility', it also wanted to emphasise the accident still would have occurred even if a human had been at the wheel. 

Those creating and studying the technology behind the cars will obviously have been aware of this concern for a while, but it’s difficult to do much about it without real world cases. Will the software have to get a driver’s licence and insurance at some point? What happens in the case of a lawsuit should the worst case scenario materialise and there’s a fatal accident? We may yet see car manufacturers taking greater responsibility for crashes, and victims could potentially seek damages from them for creating a vehicle that didn’t operate as it was meant to. There’s still much to be ironed out.

While road accidents are common anyway, and often due to human error, there are still plenty of questions about the safety of driverless cars. It won't be simple programming them to react to mistakes made by the human judgement of other motorists. Though, for the overly critical, it’s worth pointing out Google’s cars can already recognise hand signals from traffic officers and ‘think’ at speeds that far outpace humans.

There’s considerable work to do to get Google up to speed with the social conventions that govern the highways. It’s evident the tech giant’s road to mainstream success will be paved with a few more problems – and accidents – along the way.

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