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Google Self-Driving Car May Have Caused an Accident

It was just a little fender-bender, but still it's for the record books

2 min read
Google Self-Driving Car May Have Caused an Accident
Image: DMV

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.

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

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A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

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EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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