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Google, Tesla etc. try to make ‘self-driving’ equal ‘blameless’

One of the standard arguments for driverless cars is that most car accidents are caused by human error. Or, as some skeptics have put it, “Cars don’t kill people. People driving cars kill people.” Either way, the experimental technology is more and more frequently finding its way onto California roads. With industry leaders Google and Tesla Motors Inc. headquartered here, the Bay Area may soon be the world’s driverless test track.

Depending on where the information is coming from, the autonomous vehicles may not have been involved in any accidents but there have been some near misses. Reuters reported recently that two driverless cars came close to colliding in Palo Alto recently. The vehicles were prototypes from Google and Delphi Automotive, and both were equipped with back-up humans who could take over in an emergency.

The Delphi vehicle was reportedly cut off by a Google vehicle. Google denied the story, and Delphi explained that the incident was a part of road test. Delphi also insisted that reporters went too far by describing the incident as a “near miss.”

More to the point, there was no accident.

The Guardian reported recently that Google’s cars are often in accidents with cars driven by humans. It seems, however, that the most common scenario is a human-driven vehicle rear-ending an autonomous car when the latter is stopped or traveling at a very slow speed.

One expert suggested the cause of the accidents could be a problem with the car. The car may be moving too slowly to react effectively to the incursion of the other vehicle into its space.

It could also be the novelty of the Google car. The human driver was actually distracted by the car, and failed to respond quickly enough to the stop or slowdown in traffic.

The Guardian raises another question that Google, Tesla, Delphia and others may want to explore in more depth. No one, the Guardian says, has studied how sharing the road with autonomous vehicles affects humans driving other cars.

Sources:

Washington Post, “Self-driving cars nearly collide in California, news service says; Google denies report,” Michael E. Miller, June 26, 2015

The Guardian, “Google’s self-driving cars are accident-prone – but it may not be their fault,” Mark Harris, June 28, 2015

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