For some time, Google has been telling anyone who will listen, most notably federal regulators, that its self-driving vehicles and technology are far better than human drivers. Google has said because the technologies are so much better, vehicles in the future would no longer need steering wheels or such mundane things as brakes or, even, drivers. Google’s vision, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) bought into several weeks ago, says, like the old advertising slogan of the last century, “leave the driving to us (Google).” NHTSA has given a preliminary go-ahead for taking drivers, steering wheels and other items out of the equation in proposed rules changes. The changes had been sought strenuously by Google
The California-based search engine, which has had a test fleet of self-driving cars on the roads in various parts of the country, has racked up a considerable amount of test mileage on those vehicles. Indeed, the mileage is over 2 million miles over six years. Based on the test data it had accumulated which showed only 17 accidents, none reportedly caused by Googlemobiles, the software company, had been making its case rather successfully. That was until Feb. 14 when a Lexus RX450h, traveling in Mountain View, Calif., struck a municipal bus. Google even took some of the responsibility for the crash.
In a report filed Feb. 23 with California regulators, Google, while taking minor responsibility for the crash, seemed to lay most of the blame off on the municipal bus. Interestingly, the Googlemobile struck the bus which, in most states, is considered de facto proof of accident responsibility, except in the case of rear crashes. Since this is the case, the report Google filed is quite interesting.
According to the report, Google said that its vehicle was attempting to drive past sandbags and enter a travel lane. At the time, the Lexus, Google maintained, was traveling at 2 mph. Further, the search engine said the bus was moving at about 15 mph. Google, in the report said, that the driver expected that the bus “would slow or allow the Google (autonomous vehicle) to continue.” Using that assumption, the Googlemobile moved out and attempted to pull into the center lane in autonomous mode and struck the bus causing damage to the left front fender, left front wheel and driver-side fender. There were no reported injuries.
Google today issued a statement Monday that defended its actions. It said that “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 down or stop to allow us to merge into the traffic and that there would have been sufficient space to do that.” Google, quite possibly treating this incident as another part of its vehicle hardware and software beta test program, said it had conducted extensive reviews of the event. Base on the results of the testing on its simulator, Google emphasized that it had modified its code. “From now on our cars will more deeply understand that buses (and other large vehicles) are less likely to yield to us than other types of vehicles, and we hope to handle situations like this more gracefully in the future.” The crash was the first reported incident where Google has taken any responsibility.
There has been no official determination of fault in the accident. Contacted by Automotive News Monday, the Mountain View, Calif., police department said no accident report had yet been filed in the incident. A spokesman for the Santa Clara Transportation Authority, which operates municipal buses in Mountain View, confirmed the crash had occurred but had no further information. And, a spokesman for the California Department of Motor Vehicles emphasized that it was the responsibility of autonomous vehicle manufacturers to file accident reports. The DMV, the spokesman maintained, did not assess liability. An NHTSA spokesman declined to comment on the crash.
Typically, police agencies do not make determinations of fault. The insurance industry is the arbiter in California and other states. According to car insurance industry websites, adjusters generally make the fault determination, based not only tools they use but also police reports which are usually based on driver statements, witness statements. Adjusters also use physical evidence, such as skid marks on the road and damage to the vehicles.
The crash comes at a crucial time for Google. After making its case to be allowed to test vehicles without steering wheels and other driving-related items, Google came down hard on proposed California rules that require a licensed driver, steering wheel and brakes so that in the event of trouble a driver can take over from the autonomous vehicle. NHTSA has seemingly given a green light to Google’s stance, but California has not changed its position.
Automotive News provided much of the material for this article as did insurance industry websites.