Google Defends Its Self-Driving Cars’ Accident Rate

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In most of the incidents, the Google car was rear-ended, the company says

Google, founded on Sept. 4, 1998, will be turning 17 in a few months and, like many teens, it's eager to get out on the open road after a few years of puttering around town with driving instructors and anxious parents looking over its shoulder.

Critics have been questioning whether Google's self-driving cars are safe and Google, like many an adolescent driver before it, is arguing that a few dings here and there don't really amount to much and says it's getting better with experience.

The Associated Press reported recently that three of Google's self-driving cars have been involved in accidents since September, when California allowed them to begin using public roards. Google doesn't deny that but says its cars have logged 1.7 million miles since 2009, more than twice the 700,000 the AP reported. They've also been involved in 11 minor accidents, according to Google, not just three.

Driving record

Chris Urmson, the head of Google's self-driving initiative, says 11 accidents in 1.7 million miles is a lot better record than most humans achieve.

Also chiming in is Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit organization that is calling on Google to release all of the data it has on the accidents.

“It is important that the public know what happened,” wrote John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director, in a letter to Google.  “You are testing driverless vehicles on public highways, quite possibly putting other drivers at risk.” 

But Urmson says Google's cars are much safer than those driven by humans.

"If you spend enough time on the road, accidents will happen whether you’re in a car or a self-driving car. Over the 6 years since we started the project, we’ve been involved in 11 minor accidents (light damage, no injuries) during those 1.7 million miles of autonomous and manual driving with our safety drivers behind the wheel, and not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident," Urmson wrote in a blog posting on Medium. 

Urmson said that in most of the accidents, there was nothing Google's driver — human or otherwise — could have done to avoid being hit.

"Rear-end crashes are the most frequent accidents in America, and often there’s little the driver in front can do to avoid getting hit; we’ve been hit from behind seven times, mainly at traffic lights but also on the freeway," he said. "We’ve also been side-swiped a couple of times and hit by a car rolling through a stop sign. … We have a detailed review process and try to learn something from each incident, even if it hasn’t been our fault.

Simpson said Google should make all of the accident reports public.

“Rather than hide behind the cloak of DMV confidentiality, Google should disclose the accident report and the full details of the incident.  We also call on you to commit to making all future accident reports public,” he said in a letter to Google executives.

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