Google announced in September that it is expanding its testing of self-driving cars from Southern California to Austin, Texas. The announcement came after the tech company logged more than 1.16 million miles of safe driverless diving.
Google’s fleet of driverless cars drives more than 10,000 miles per week. Testing on the driverless Lexus cars, which are equipped with a multitude of sensors and cameras that feed information to the car’s controls, first started in 2009.
Since that time, the autonomous cars have been involved in 16 accidents, all of them minor. Incredibly, none of the accidents were caused by the driverless cars but by the human drivers of other cars, most of whom were not paying attention to the traffic conditions around them, or at least they weren’t as fully aware and responsive to traffic as Google’s self-driving cars, which can see full-circle and react quicker than human drivers.
The first and only accident involving a Google car with reported injuries underscores the dangers of human error, particularly distraction, in driving, probably more than it reveals about automated driving itself. On July 1, a self-driving Google Lexus was navigating the streets of Mountain View, Calif., at rush hour when it was rear-ended by another car traveling 17 mph. The Google car sustained damage to its rear bumper and the offending car lost its front fender.
The Google car was smart enough not to travel through a green light and get stuck in the intersection, so it braked accordingly along with three other vehicles traveling in the same lane. That’s when the other car rear-ended Google.
The driver of the other car reported minor neck and back pain.
Chris Urmson, the head of Google’s driverless car project, wrote in a blog post that the driver at fault in the crash hadn’t even attempted to brake.
“The clear theme is human error and inattention,” he wrote. “We’ll take all this as a signal that we’re starting to compare favorably with human drivers.”
“Our self-driving cars are being hit surprisingly often by other drivers who are distracted and not paying attention to the road,” he said. “That’s a big motivator for us.”
Apple is also testing self-driving cars, as are most other major automakers. Google has set the pace among its competitors and may expand its testing and development even quicker in the future to maintain its lead.