Google driverless car hits bus, stokes controversy

Google driverless car hits bus, stokes controversy

google car2The controversy over driverless cars shifted into high gear as an automated vehicle built by Google hit a passenger bus.

“The crash may be the first case of one of its autonomous cars hitting another vehicle and the fault of the self-driving car,” Reuters reported. “The Mountain View, California-based Internet search leader said it made changes to its software after the crash to avoid future incidents.”

The collision resulted from a confluence of atypical but not unusual circumstances on a roadway in Mountain View. Because of a sandbagged manhole, the car had to make a wider right turn at an intersection than it had originally planned to do. In the flow of traffic, the bus approached from behind. “We can imagine the bus driver assumed we were going to stay put. Unfortunately, all these assumptions led us to the same spot in the lane at the same time. This type of misunderstanding happens between human drivers on the road every day,” Google concluded in its monthly report for February.

“This is a classic example of the negotiation that’s a normal part of driving — we’re all trying to predict each other’s movements,” the report suggested. “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.”

Market moves

Despite the reassuring tone of the summary, Google-watchers noted that an important threshold had been crossed. “Google has prided itself on the fact that its self-driving car fleet has never been responsible for any of its crashes — they’ve always been caused by another (decidedly more human) force,” The Verge observed. But business analysts have not been too hard on the company; “in fairness, unless every single car on the road is autonomous, Google is right: there is some degree of negotiation involved, and false assumptions in those negotiations are where the crashes can happen,” The Verge added.

Other companies in the automated car business have been pushing hard to compete. Apple recently (and quietly) acquired the old Pepsi bottling plant in Sunnyvale, a 96,000-square-foot acquisition that quickly sparked speculation around its expanded electric vehicle program, the Silicon Valley Business Journal noted.

Fantasies and fears

Civic leaders, at least in California, have also tilted in favor of a future full of automated cars. In a crowded metropolis — especially one with lots of roads and little public transit — robocars could make a potentially massive difference in emissions and congestion. At a recent appearance with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and others for the Times-hosted California Conversation series, Google’s robocar chief had played up the vehicles’ intelligent safety measures. “Chris Urmson, head of Google’s self driving car project, offered a presentation showing how its autonomous cars learned to avoid even the most anomalous hazards — such as a duck in the road being chased by a person in a wheelchair,” the Times recalled. “Urmson said 94 percent of accidents are caused by human error and argued that self-driving cars would save lives.”

Consumers, by contrast, have shown signs of being more skittish. According to a new AAA survey reported by CNN, “75 percent of drivers say they wouldn’t feel safe in such a vehicle,” even though “60 percent drivers would like to get some kind of self-driving feature, such as automatic braking or self-parking, the next time they buy a new car.” The legal issues surrounding insurance liability in automated crashes have also raised questions. USA Today columnist John Shinal wondered who would be held liable “if a hypothetical-and-conscientious Uber driver of the future overrides the control” of a robocar “to avoid an old lady walking her dog — but instead hits and kills an Amazon grocery deliveryman[.]”

7 comments

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  1. Standing Fast
    Standing Fast 4 March, 2016, 11:10

    Um.
    As P.T. Barnum once said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
    I thought the main argument in favor of driverless cars was their superior safety over cars driven by mere mortals.
    If anyone thinks that an acceptable standard for the safety of driverless cars is that they are no more dangerous than vehicles driven by human beings, they’ve missed the point.
    We’re being told by proponents of these idiot-machines that they will save lives, make the air cleaner, waste less fuel, and so on.
    I don’t think so.
    Makes me wonder if the driverless-car promoters are having us on–after all, if we go for it they stand to make a lot of money at our expense.
    If I was in the automobile insurance business, I wouldn’t insure a driverless car for the same reason that if I was in the home insurance business, I wouldn’t insure a house built on hillsides, in flood plains or beach-front properties.
    The real world does not operate according to the imaginary laws of science-fiction.

    Reply this comment
    • Ann Marie
      Ann Marie 11 March, 2016, 18:53

      Am I correct in assuming that driverless cars will have passengers?
      If the primary selling point of a driverless car is that you have a taxi without having to pay – does the owner of the driverless car have the option of either taking or not taking the wheel?
      If yes to the above, then it’s another technology putting people out of work.
      We have people from the third world flooding the country – what are they going to do in a society that requires more and more specialized knowledge to survive?

      Reply this comment
      • Standing Fast
        Standing Fast 12 March, 2016, 11:37

        Thank you. I was wondering the same thing myself.
        From what I’ve read, the driverless cars come in two models: one with an option for a human passenger to take control at their discretion and one without that option.
        Apparently, tests show the first option doesn’t work very well because while the auto-pilot is functioning, the human passenger is probably not watching the road, so manufacturers prefer the second option.
        Problem is that in California, people are more likely to go for driverless cars with the first option than the second. It is a kind of Catch-22.

        Reply this comment
        • Standing Fast
          Standing Fast 12 March, 2016, 11:41

          But, your question about assuming that driverless cars having passengers.
          Perhaps this assumption is not a valid one. If they can be programmed to take people places, they can be programmed to take things places without a passenger.

          Reply this comment
  2. Bill - San Jose
    Bill - San Jose 4 March, 2016, 18:22

    This is still a wonderful technology. Hey, I was in a car when an abrupt stop occurred. The car made the stop, not the driver.

    Next topic about stupid people continuing to be stupid.

    // let’s revive the term party with driverless cars taking home drunk Americans //

    Reply this comment
  3. desmond
    desmond 5 March, 2016, 05:29

    This is a great way to track people’s travels. Great leaders like Newsom can break from barnyard play time, and check his political rivals. Baa, Oink…..

    Reply this comment
  4. Steffen
    Steffen 23 March, 2016, 14:21

    Humans don’t follow rules literally because they have judgement and discretion. Humans are constantly weighing between different imperfect, complex and ambiguous circumstances and are pretty good at it. Software cannot do this and probably never will. Sure, computers can be better than some dumber humans and if we stupidize people enough, computers will seem quite competent. The question is: Why do we want to replace humans with computers in the first place? Are we short of drivers and assembly line workers? Um, not really. So what is this goal about? If people don’t want to drive, they can take public transit. Don’t like public transit? Make your govt fund it better.

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