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One of Google’s self-driving cars was recently involved in an accident, and the company has released a video showing what the crash looked like from the car’s perspective. It’s clear that Google’s car was not at fault — in fact, this accident demonstrates pretty clearly the danger of letting distracted humans drive.
On July 1, one of Google’s Lexus driverless cars was driving autonomously toward a Mountain View intersection. The light was green, but traffic was backed up on the other side, so three cars — including Google’s — slowed to a stop to avoid getting stuck in the middle of the intersection. After they’d stopped, a car crashed into the back of them at 17 mph — and it was obvious that it hadn’t braked at all.
As you can see, the self-driving car braked normally, and the vehicle behind it had plenty of room to stop, but it never slowed down. Why? The driver’s attention was focused elsewhere — a state human drivers find themselves in far too often.
Self-Driving Cars vs. Humans
In terms of safety, how do driverless cars stack up against their human counterparts?
Well, because it’s not fair to use a single incident to answer that question, let’s take a quick look at the accident history of Google’s self-driving cars.
Since the start of the project in 2009, other drivers have hit Google’s self-driving cars 14 times — and 11 of those incidents were rear-enders. After more than a million miles of autonomous driving over the course of six years, according to Google not once has the self-driving car been the cause of a collision. In each case, it’s the result of human error and inattention.
This is very telling, I’d say, but it’s nothing we didn’t already know. Humans are good at a lot of things, but, statistically, driving isn’t one of them.
Think about it: people do all sorts of dangerous things behind the wheel. We eat, we talk on our phones, we text, we drive after drinking alcohol, we fall asleep, and we generally fail to give the task of driving the attention it demands. (Have you ever looked up after a long stretch of road only to realize you haven’t been paying any attention?) Even without blatant negligence, nobody is perfect. Factors like the blind spot and the brain’s inability to multitask can put you in mortal peril.
Self-driving cars don’t have these human failings. They don’t get distracted, they don’t get tired, and they are more aware of their surroundings than any human being could ever be. At any given moment, Google’s self-driving car knows the speed limit, the current state of approaching traffic lights, and the exact position of every vehicle, pedestrian, biker, and traffic cone on the road. It takes all of this data into account and reacts accordingly, ensuring the safety of its passengers and other drivers at all times.
Google’s Chris Urmson puts it this way:
Our self-driving cars can pay attention to hundreds of objects at once, 360 degrees in all directions, and they never get tired, irritable or distracted. People, on the other hand, “drive as if the world is a television show viewed on TiVo that can be paused in real time — one can duck out for a moment, grab a beer from the fridge, and come back to right where they left off without missing a beat” — to quote Sheila Klauer of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do. That’s certainly consistent with what we’re seeing.
With that said, autonomous vehicles aren’t perfect yet. While they’ve mastered the art of cruising around sunny Silicon Valley, it’s unclear how Google plans to tackle the issue of severe weather. Rain and snow can scatter the laser beams that the robot uses primarily to see. Google largely hasn’t discussed their plans to get around this challenge.
Google’s self-driving cars rely heavily on light to drive autonomously — meaning a snowstorm could easily render the whole system inoperative. That’s a big problem.
There are potential solutions, though, including wireless communication between vehicles and from vehicles to stoplights and sensing devices installed in roadways. A number of automotive suppliers are heavily invested in research and development to prepare for the forecasted $42 billion driverless car manufacturing market, so it’s only a matter of time until weather becomes a non-issue.
What Do You Think?
What are your thoughts on self-driving cars? Research shows they’re safer than human drivers, but many people are (understandably) freaked out by the whole idea. Can you see yourself being chauffeured around by a robot a decade from now? Let us know in the comments below!
Image Credit: Cracked Glass Texture I via Devianart, Google, Sam Abuelsamid