It was, of course, only a matter of time. It’s been reported that a Google’s driverless car has caused an accident with a bus in Mountain View, California. The car was trying to navigate its way around a sandbag in the road at 2mph. As it moved back into the centre of the lane, it struck the side of a bus travelling at around 15mph. Thankfully no one was injured.
We’ve blogged previously on liability for accidents caused by driverless cars. Here in the UK, the Department for Transport suggests that there would be strict liability on the manufacturer, i.e. Google. In a statement, Google said, “We clearly bear some responsibility, because if our car hadn’t moved there wouldn’t have been a collision.” It’s the first time Google has accepted any responsibility for an accident involving its self-driving vehicles. Last November, they said that 17 minor accidents involving their driverless cars had happened in over two million miles of driving. They claim previous accidents, however, were a result of human error – either because the car was being manually driven at the time, or because it was the fault of a third party driver. We’ve heard repeatedly from Google that the elimination of driver error makes driverless cars much safer than their traditional equivalents.
It’s interesting to note, though, that the test driver on board also “believed the bus would slow or allow the Google vehicle to continue.” It seems that human error, whether the test driver’s or the bus driver’s, may also have played its part in this case. Google says it will adjust the software to reflect that larger vehicles are less likely to yield. But who says a bus or lorry is less likely to slow down, than, say, a disgruntled taxi driver or a commuter in a hurry? All the clever programming in the world surely can’t account for the unpredictable behaviour of human drivers.
There’s no doubt many people are sceptical about the rise of self-driving cars – what happens when they cause their first fatality? This latest accident, however, seems unlikely to dent Google’s ambitions. After all, 1775 people were killed on British roads in 2014, and 22,807 seriously injured, and yet our love affair with the old-fashioned automobile continues. According to Google, mass market driverless cars could even get the green light by 2017 to 2020.