Google self-driving car crash rates: Worrisome or impressive?

Google’s self-driving cars have been rear-ended and side-swiped while navigating Bay Area roads and freeways, but it’s never been the autonomous car’s fault, the company’s chief of driverless cars said in a defense of the technology Monday.

Earlier on Monday, the Associated Press reported that there have been four accidents involving self-driving cars in California since September, when the state Department of Motor Vehicles began issuing permits to companies that want to test vehicles on public roads (which Google had already been doing for several years). Three of the accidents involved Lexus SUVs that Google outfitted with self-driving software, the AP said. A fourth involved a test vehicle operated by Delphi Automotive.

The DMV says the accident reports are confidential and so the agency is not publicly releasing them, to the chagrin of Google critics such as John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, who had filed a public records request a week ago seeking driverless car accident reports.

“Google appears to be keeping a big lid on what’s going on,” Simpson said Monday. “They should simply put out the reports they filed with the DMV.”

Rather than asking Californians to “just trust us,” publicly reporting accidents will “in the long-run enhance people’s trust in the technology as it develops,” Simpson said.

Without making any reference to the AP report, the head of Google’s self-driving car project, Chris Urmson, published an essay in Medium’s Backchannel on Monday boasting of Google’s record and revealing some more detail about the number of accidents and what caused them.

“Over the 6 years since we started the project, we’ve been involved in 11 minor accidents (light damage, no injuries) during those 1.7 million miles of autonomous and manual driving with our safety drivers behind the wheel, and not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident,” Urmson wrote.

In contrast, Urmson wrote that “our safety drivers routinely see people weaving in and out of their lanes; we’ve spotted people reading books, and even one playing a trumpet.”

Above: U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt listened earlier this year to Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving car project, discuss the two-seater prototype vehicle at the Google campus in Mountain View. (Karl Mondon/Staff)


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  • ShrykeAbysmal

    Ride a motorcycle in L.A. My vote is highly, HIGHLY worrisome.

  • conniesz

    The reports can’t be released unless both parties agree – so assuming Google would agree because it is true that the automous cars did not cause any of the accidents that means a driver would have to admit in public that he was the cause – not bloody likely.

  • Jodie_S

    I have been wondering how the driverless cars will register the subtle (and not so subtle) actions that people make, from simple hand movements indicating another driver can go, to monitoring vehicle motions that might indicate an upcoming lane change or turn, or even erratic behavior that signals a human driver to avoid a certain car and thus an accident. I am not convinced that some of the accidents with the driverless vehicles might have actually been avoided by a human’s basic instincts and defensive driving.

  • They’re lying of course. A skilled defensive driver (not that it’s a majority) will anticipate beyond what’s legal and hedge a little. There are many examples such as having a proper safety margin in front, but finessing the margin behind requires experience and skill. The California driver’s manual mentions it, but few drivers make the necessary adjustments, and I doubt that the self-driving cars are adept at it. Reading other drivers’ body language may seem futile through car windows, and the fact that you can’t see much below their shoulders, yet checking their eyes and head movements can help anticipate sudden errors on their part.

    • Gary

      Yet a computer’s reaction time to make maneuvers to prevent a potential accident is significantly faster than the slow human reaction rate no matter how quick your reflexes may be… Being a California driver and motorcycle rider for two decades I prefer autos driven by a computer versus a person. People are far too prone to disracted driving; computers are not.

      • A good defensive driver who leaves a proper safety margin will beat the computer, while the computer will probably beat the average driver, who doesn’t leave proper margins. Which are you?

        • Gary

          Yet…a computer would have the proper safety margins already and beat the driver in reaction time so it is a win-win.

          Even the best driver cannot beat a computer, you know this. You just don’t want to give up your “right to drive” and independence you feel with driving. This is a natural feeling that people will be torn with as we progress towards autonomous automobiles.

          • You are lying. Yes, a computer can win at chess, but not at driving. Unless of course we “forgive” the computer for everything it lacks. Common sense. Driving is not like chess, where all the moves are known in advance.

          • Gary

            Ok. Believe what you want. Defensive driving isn’t a human skill. You do make me chuckle.

          • Well, you keep chuckling, and keep hoping you can divert people away from certain realizations. Some of us are aware….

          • Gary

            The realization that computers can do a number of things better and more safely than humans? Such as driving…? Hmm…your realizations do not equal the truth.

          • The realization that the programs are inferior to the human authors who wrote them? You are seriously out of touch with reality.

          • Gary

            Dale…you seriously need to step out into reality. Humans make more errors than computers. Yes, computers are designed and made by humans, but that does not make them more prone to error than humans. In fact, if you look over the course of history of technology the technology error versus human error is next to nothing.

            For example, MS Excel formulations that we all take for granted in that lovely spreadsheet program was designed by humans. Does it mean that humans are better or faster in those calculations than Excel? No, not by far. Does it mean that the formulations in Excel are more prone to error than humans because the program was designed by humans? Not at all.

            You are really grasping at straws in your uneducated and unthoughtful “logical” argument.

          • You have no idea who you’re talking to. I’ve written everything from world-class MRP to Voyager-tracking for JPL. When you’re ready to give up your fantasies you may *begin* to learn the differences between humans and computers.

          • Gary

            So you prefer an abacus over a calculator?

   aren’t super human. Obviously you are pretty smart, just don’t be so smug.

            You know that computers can do a better job and make the roads safer than humans when it comes to driving vehicles. You are just fearful of what may come of it. Loss of independence or computers taking over the world.

            Even for every one “awesomely skilled defensive driver Dale” there are 9 people who are terrible distracted Dans or Danas.

            So…continue your awesome defensive driving skills, but society will be have automated vehicles, period.

          • Drugs might help you.

          • Gary

            Logic might help you and a sense of modesty, but that might be asking too much of you.

          • I’m fine, you’re not.

          • Gary

            Typical response of the insane.

          • You call someone you don’t know insane because they disagree with you? I’ll tell you this – you keep up your stalking and you’ll be getting a call from the police.