Google's self driving car crashes into bus: who is to blame?

Footage has just emerged of a self-driving car crashing into a bus in California last month.

No injuries were reported (the car was travelling at 2mph at the time, whilst the bus was at 15mph) but there is damage to the bonnet of the autonomous Lexus car (owned by Google) that no amount of ‘popping it back out again’ is going to fix.

This video, courtesy of The Associated Press, shows the moment of impact – it’s CCTV footage and doesn’t make it completely clear what exactly happened.  But for me, the most revealing part of it is when the bus driver is shown to be steering with one hand, eating a sandwich, minus a seatbelt:

There have been reports of self-driving cars being involved in minor incidents before. Up until now, it has always been the actual drivers who have been at fault, mostly because they’ve rear ended the autonomous vehicle. This marks the first instance of Google admitting that their car was partly to blame for the crash:

“Our car had detected the approaching bus, but predicted that it would yield to us because we were ahead of it. Our test driver, who had been watching the bus in the mirror, also expected the bus to slow or stop. And we can imagine the bus driver assumed we were going to stay put. Unfortunately, all these assumptions led us to the same spot in the lane at the same time. This type of misunderstanding happens between human drivers on the road every day.”

“This is a classic example of the negotiation that’s a normal part of driving — we’re all trying to predict each other’s movements. In this case, we clearly bear some responsibility, because if our car hadn’t moved there wouldn’t have been a collision. That said, our test driver believed the bus was going to slow or stop to allow us to merge into the traffic, and that there would be sufficient space to do that.”

So will this case put the brakes on the development of autonomous vehicles? I doubt it.

In my opinion, the driverless car acted in a much safer manner than the one handed, seatbeltless bus driver. I totally understand that driving is about reacting to what’s on the road, and the Google car probably did make one assumption too many in this situation. But how many times have you been able to predict every inane action showcased by other drivers on a daily basis?

Google have already stated they are learning from this situation, and adapting their cars as a result:

“Our cars will more deeply understand that buses and other large vehicles are less likely to yield to us than other types of vehicles, and we hope to handle situations like this more gracefully in the future.”

If you want to know whether this trend towards self-driving cars is still gathering steam, you only have to look at BMW’s stunning announcement this week on ‘the next 100 years of driving’.  It included details about their new (insane) concept car, the dashboards of which have been replaced with augmented reality screens.

The ‘BMW 100’ comes in two modes – ‘Boost mode’ which assists you when you’re driving, and ‘Ease mode’ which completely takes over. In ease mode the steering wheel retracts and the seats change shape so you can communicate better with your passengers. The windshield becomes an entertainment screen so you can stream TV and movies.

This concept is a long way off becoming commercial, but all the production elements are based on technologies that are being developed right now, and will be available in the coming decades.  

“It’s time to be ahead of time,” is what BMW are saying.  This is no fad…