The very first accident caused by a robotic car occurred last week, when a Google car had a little encounter with the side of a bus in Mountain View, Calif., home to Alphabet.
It was a sedate fender-bender, according to the report filed with the California Department of Motor Vehicles and signed by Chris Urmson, head of the company's self-driving car project. It describes how a Google Lexus model approached a red light, signaled that it wanted to turn right before stopping, and when the light turned green found that its way forward was blocked by sandbags placed around a storm drain. The car waited as a number of cars passed before it tried to get around the bags and into the center of the lane, at which point a bus approached from behind. The Google car’s driver did not intervene, assuming that the bus would either stop or let the Google car nose gingerly into traffic. But no: The Google car—moving at about 3 kilometers per hour (2 mph)—made contact with the bus, going about 24 kph (15 mph), producing damage to the car’s front fender and wheel and to a sensor.
There were no casualties except, perhaps, to corporate pride. Nobody’s perfect.
“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. In this case, we clearly bear some responsibility, because if our car hadn't moved there wouldn't have been a collision," Google said in its monthly report, technically due out Tuesday but made available to news organizations.
It had to happen eventually. Last year, Google admitted that its cars had experienced a number of near-misses. As Urmson noted at the time, none of those near-misses ever threatened to cause serious damage, and the rate at which they occurred had fallen, with only 5 near-misses taking place over a total of about 600,000 kilometers of testing done during the first 11 months of 2011. It really does suggest that Google cars drive more safely than the average person does.