Automotive

Google reveals lessons learned (and accident count) from self-driving car program

The Google Self-Driving Car prototype, based on a Lexis SUV, waits patiently at a traffic light
The Google Self-Driving Car prototype, based on a Lexis SUV, waits patiently at a traffic light
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In this image captured from the sensors of the Self-Driving Car another car (purple box) cuts in front of the robot car, causing it to stop, indicated by the red fence icon
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In this image captured from the sensors of the Self-Driving Car another car (purple box) cuts in front of the robot car, causing it to stop, indicated by the red fence icon
In this image, two cars (purple boxes) are going the wrong way down a boulevard at night – the Google car sees them equally well in day or night conditions
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In this image, two cars (purple boxes) are going the wrong way down a boulevard at night – the Google car sees them equally well in day or night conditions
A bicyclist (blue box) is predicted to go in front of the Google Car (red path), which waits before entering the intersection
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A bicyclist (blue box) is predicted to go in front of the Google Car (red path), which waits before entering the intersection
Another car (purple box) makes an illegal right turn from the left lane, in front of the vigilant robot car
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Another car (purple box) makes an illegal right turn from the left lane, in front of the vigilant robot car
The first version of the Google Self-Driving car was based on the Toyota Prius with a 3D laser scanner on the roof
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The first version of the Google Self-Driving car was based on the Toyota Prius with a 3D laser scanner on the roof
The Google Self-Driving Car prototype, based on a Lexis SUV, waits patiently at a traffic light
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The Google Self-Driving Car prototype, based on a Lexis SUV, waits patiently at a traffic light
The next generation of self-driving cars from Google might be a commuter vehicle that has no steering or brake pedals – just a touch screen to enter your destination.
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The next generation of self-driving cars from Google might be a commuter vehicle that has no steering or brake pedals – just a touch screen to enter your destination.

Chris Urmson, director of the Google Self-Driving Car program, has revealed that the small fleet (20+) of Google autonomous cars has been involved in 11 accidents over the almost 1.7 million miles (2.7 million km) the cars have traveled in the six years they've been on the road. However, Urmson was adamant that "not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident" and revealed some of the lessons learned over the journey so far.

Urmson's statements came in the form of a post on Backchannel, which followed an Associated Press report revealing the accident count in the wake of a newCalifornia law requiring Google and others to report accidents involving its self-driving cars to the state. Google reported three accidents between May2014 and May 2015, while Delphi, which has its own version of aself-driving car, an Audi SQ5, reported its vehicle was struck whilewaiting to turn at an intersection and not under autonomous control.

In his post, Urmson details that the GoogleCars were rear-ended seven times by other cars, side swiped twice, and hit onceby a car running a stop sign, with the majority of the accidents occurring on city streets ratherthan highways. The 1.7 million miles (2.7 million km) the cars are reported to have traveled combines the distance traveled autonomously and under manual control.

As a point of comparison to human drivers, based on data from theNational Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) the rate ofaccidents with "property damage only" in 2012 was around 0.38 per 100,000 miles (161,000 km) driven – taking into account that 54 percent of property damage accidents aren't even reported. Google has experienced 0.64 accidents per 100,000 miles driven, whichis higher than the average.

I wanted to check this against my own driving record. I've beendriving for 37 years, averaging 15,000 miles (24,000) per year. I've had four accidents, (two of which were my fault), so my accident rate is 0.66 per 100,000 miles, orroughly the same as the Google self-driving cars. You can consider your own performance.

Urmson goes on to detail some of thelessons that the Google team has learned with over a million autonomous milesdriven in its test cars and reveals where accidentsare most likely to happen.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Google says that it has seen a lot of people not payingattention to the road. "Our safety drivers routinely seepeople weaving in and out of their lanes; we've spotted people reading books,and even one playing a trumpet," says Urmson. And that's not even counting all of the drivers talking or texting on smartphones. Accordingto government reports, 3,328 deaths and 421,000 injuries per year are caused bydistracted driving, with this now accounting for one in five of all crashes in the US and rising 6 percent peryear.

Of course, automated cars don't get distracted, never failto pay attention, and have no blind spots in their 360-degree laser sensors. Theyalso don't drink, do drugs, or fall asleep at the wheel.

In this image captured from the sensors of the Self-Driving Car another car (purple box) cuts in front of the robot car, causing it to stop, indicated by the red fence icon
In this image captured from the sensors of the Self-Driving Car another car (purple box) cuts in front of the robot car, causing it to stop, indicated by the red fence icon

The next highest cause of problems for the Google cars is intersections, which shouldn't be a surprise. It has encountered several instances of people actually driving the wrong way down a divided street, mostly at night – with two cars driving the wrong way at once on one occasion. Other intersection problems included people changing lanes midway through a turn, and suddenly changing their mind about which direction to turn and swerving in front of the self-driving car.

Urmson reports that Google is continuing to test and refine its vehicle's software, hardware, and sensors, with the eventual goal of having a safe vehicle with no human controls at all. It emphasizes that currently a human safety driver is behind the wheel whenever the cars on on public roads, ready to take over instantly if necessary. However, Urmson didn't provide statistics on these "operator interventions", but that testing is continuing, with the cars driving 10,000 miles (16,100 km) a month on city streets and highways.

"We'll continueto drive thousands of miles so we can all better understand the all too commonincidents that cause many of us to dislike day to day driving  –  and we'llcontinue to work hard on developing a self-driving car that can shoulder thisburden for us," Urmson concluded.

The following video features a ride-along with the a safety driver for the Google Self- Driving Car program.

Sources: Google via Backchannel, Associated Press, National HighwayTraffic Safety Administration

A Ride in the Google Self Driving Car

11 comments
bradleydad
It amusing, I suppose, to see this thing break traffic laws in this video. I'm surprised they didn't edit it out. For example, proceding across a crosswalk whils pedistrians are crossing. (one minute and 22 seconds) It doesn't matter if the pedistrians are crossing against the light. The article doesn't say how many tickets they have gotten.
christopher
I saw one yesterday turn into a near-empty carpark, and noticed it was going ridiculously slowly. I wonder how many of those 7 rear-enders were "encouraged" somehow by the car. Who's fault is it *really* if the dude in front of you slows unexpectedly and/or too rapidly? And this is not a human driver - it knows what's going on behind it at *all* times. Is it programmed to "not care" if the accident that happens "isn't it's fault" ? Humans avoid all accidents by instinct usually, not just the ones they're not causing.
Rigby5
The article is misleading. That is not a normal driving record. I have not had an accident in over 40 years, and I probably drive twice as much as most people, with long cross country trips a least once a year. They claim the accidents were not the fault of the autonomous system, but the reality is that all accidents can be avoided. It is up to everyone to drive defensively. When Google Cars were rear-ended, side swiped, and hit once by a car running a stop sign, all of those could have been avoided. I would have likely been able to avoid them. Most people likely could have avoided them. For example, if you are watching, it is obvious when someone is not slowing down for a stop sign. Unless you are driving a huge semi truck, there is no excuse for letting someone hit you from running a stop sign.
Bob Flint
Interesting to hear they are taking into account the assertiveness needed in the system. There are always aggressive, and shy drivers, and every combination in between. Having everyone perfectly in sync is the goal, but not realistically achievable at an economy of scale and adopted by everyone. Considering the billions of pedestrians, skateboarders, cyclists, motorcycles, cars, trucks, and things that don't belong on the road throughout the planet.
Morton Sprawl
@Rigby5 You probably don't drive much in Silicon Valley, either. Drivers, here, are nuts, and the traffic is worse. If they took one of those Google cars out to Tennessee it could probably drive 100 years without any accidents. I think it'd be great for longer road trips to just let the car drive. Replace "cruise control" with "automatic pilot." Require it for convicted drunk drivers.
GregCocchiaro
This is so cool! Pretty exciting to see how smart the system is getting, able to notice cones, construction, cyclists, etc... I wonder if it is able to use visual cues on roads with no lines... Where I live, the lines always get scraped off during the winter and in spring it's sometimes hard to tell even for me where the lanes are... I wonder what this car would do?
Madlyb
@Rigby5 The only to always avoid an accident is to not to drive in the first place. Personally I have been driving about 35 years and I have been 4 accidents...mostly when I was younger. One of those 3 was my fault (had a tire blow and over corrected) and of the remaining 3, only one could have potentially been avoided and that would have required absolute perfect response and correction on my part.
Stephen N Russell
Google I volunteer to drive your Lexsus SUV for the So CA market. Or future models IF any planned Sent PO mail to Hqs. Thanks.
Grunchy
I once worked for a trucking company, and there were numerous drivers who had millions of miles over decades of travel without any accidents whatsoever. If you were to honestly look at a typical accident, where one or both drivers deny responsibility, you would probably find each driver had an inkling of danger yet didn't act on it. It is troubling for me to hear that Google's car got run into yet it didn't try to sound its horn, flash its lights, or otherwise attempt to get out of the way.
xs400
Nice, but when will it be able to drive in India???