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Humans were to blame in Google self-driving car crash, police say

Humans were to blame in Google self-driving car crash, police say
[Photo: Courtesy Waymo]

An autonomous car being tested by Google-owned Waymo was involved in a serious collision in the Phoenix, Arizona suburb of Chandler, when a car being driven by a human swerved to avoid another car, and left the human operator in the Waymo with minor injuries.

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On Friday night, the company released a video from its vehicle’s dash-mounted cameras that shows a car swerving towards the Waymo in the moments before the collision:

The incident—two months after an Uber self-driving car struck and killed a pedestrian in nearby Tempe—is still under investigation, but early indications are that it was not the fault of the autonomous car. Google said in a statement that the vehicle was not in self-driving mode at the time of the accident, but was being driven by the human operator.

The Waymo vehicle, a Chrysler Pacifica, was struck by a human-piloted Honda sedan that swerved to avoid hitting another car, according to a police statement reported by the Associated Press. In the process, the Honda crossed to the side of the road with traffic running in the opposite direction, and plowed into Waymo’s test van. Both vehicles appeared heavily damaged, but police report that someone sitting in the driver’s seat of the Waymo sustained only “minor injuries.”

It’s not clear which human driver was at fault, but forthcoming video from the Waymo vehicle will likely reveal more. Dash-cam video from Uber’s fatal accident in March—when one of its cars in autonomous mode struck and killed Elaine Hertzberg—showed that that event was probably avoidable, contrary to initial police statements. Uber’s autonomous car operations have since been suspended in Arizona.

Uber and Waymo are tied by more than their misfortunes in the Grand Canyon State, which has become one of the most active testing grounds for self-driving cars. In February, Uber settled a lawsuit with Alphabet, the parent company of Waymo (and Google) over the alleged theft of self-driving car intellectual property.

In February, Google said that its self-driving cars have driven 5 million miles on public roads since 2009. Wired puts Google’s accident record so far into some perspective:

Crash reports show Waymo cars have been involved in upwards of 30 minor crashes, but have caused just one: In 2016, a Lexus SUV in autonomous mode changed lanes into the path of a public bus. The SUV sustained minor damage, and no one was hurt. The numbers for humans are hard to pin down, but researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute estimate people crash 4.2 times per million miles. That would be 21 crashes over 5 million miles, roughly matching Waymo’s record.

As companies work to improve their self-driving technology and regulators scramble to figure out how to create industry standards, crashes like this—even if they turn out to be human-caused—won’t likely stop concerns about the safety of algorithmic drivers.


Related: Who’s Making Sure That Self-Driving Cars Are Safe?

Updated to clarify that the Waymo vehicle was not in autonomous mode.

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