Just last month, regulators in the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) decided that self-driving cars should be treated like human drivers. This means that there is no legal requirement for a human to have control of such an autonomous car, which raises an interesting question: If a self-driving car crashes into another vehicle, who is to blame?
As reported by BBC News, this question is now being addressed. Just four days after the progressive NHTSA declaration, one of Google’s self-driving cars crashed into a bus in California. Although this isn’t the first accident of its kind – small, previous scrapes were definitely due to human error – this may be the first time that the car itself caused the bump.
The car, traveling at three kilometers per hour (two miles per hour), decided to pull itself out in front of an incoming bus moving at 24 kilometers per hour (15 miles per hour). The passenger in the Google car assumed that the incoming bus would reduce its speed in order to let the car out, so when he saw the two on a collision course, he did not override the self-driving computer.
A publically-released report notes that the on-board algorithm did not understand that some vehicles – including buses – are less likely to yield to smaller cars than others. Google has already declared that it has updated its software, saying that its engineers and programmers “hope to handle situations like this more gracefully in the future,” BBC News reports.
Although no one was injured in the relatively undramatic incident, Google has met with California’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to discuss where the blame ultimately lies. If the car is seen to have been culpable, it will be a small setback for Google’s self-driving initiative.
There were 2.24 million traffic injuries in the U.S. in 2010, almost always down to human error; in total, over 35,000 lives were lost. Self-driving cars, when completely autonomous, are ultimately supposed to reduce these numbers to as close to zero as possible. Indeed, a recent report by the Institution of Management Engineers in the U.K. suggested that 95 percent of traffic accidents could be averted if self-driving vehicles are widely adopted.