A self-driving Google car

Fancy a game of chicken?

AP/Press Association Images/Tony Avelar

On 14 February, the AI in charge of one of Google’s cars drove into the side of a bus. The incident – which California’s Department of Motor Vehicles documented publicly yesterday – is the first clear-cut case of an accident caused by the tech giant’s self-driving technology.

The bus was driving straight ahead on Silicon Valley’s busy El Camino Real road when Google’s Lexus SUV pulled out into its side, crushing the car’s wing. The accident report says the car sustained some damage to a wheel, bodywork and side-mounted sensors. There were no injuries.

Google’s autonomous cars have been involved in 18 accidents in Mountain View since the company started testing its self-driving systems there in 2010. In all previous accidents, however, another vehicle struck the Google car while it was either stationary or moving slowly. This is the first time that a vehicle controlled by Google’s software seems to have been at fault.

“We clearly bear some responsibility, because if our car hadn’t moved there wouldn’t have been a collision,” said Google in a statement.

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 No yielding

The number 22 bus was carrying 15 passengers on a route criss-crossing Silicon Valley from Palo Alto to San Jose. The Google car stopped to avoid sandbags positioned around a storm drain, then tried to merge back into traffic in front of the bus, which was travelling at about 15 miles per hour (24 kph).

“Our car had detected the approaching bus, but predicted that it would yield to us because we were ahead of it,” says Google.

A spokesperson for Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, which runs public transit in the area, says that although the bus only sustained minor damage, its passengers were transferred and the vehicle was removed from service. No one at the scene called the police. The VTA would not confirm whether it intends to pursue Google for the cost of repairs to the single-decker, articulated bus.

Of the 17 earlier accidents involving Google’s self-driving cars, four also occurred on El Camino Real, and one at the very same intersection as the most recent incident. According to a spokesperson at the Mountain View Police Department, El Camino is not considered a hotspot for collisions.

Nevertheless, it is the busiest surface street in Mountain View, with multiple lanes of traffic, pedestrians and cyclists, as well as vehicles exiting shops and businesses.

“The real world is messy! And it’s why the most important criteria for the early deployments of automated vehicles will be location, location, location,” says Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina.

Google’s admits that it needs to improve its software’s social motoring: the continuous give-and-take of driving where human drivers anticipate the actions of other road users even when both (or neither) are strictly following the law. The company says it has already updated its cars’ software to understand that large vehicles like buses are less likely to yield.

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