SAN FRANCISCO — Google will begin reporting incidents encountered by its driverless-car program on a dedicated website, the search company announced Friday.
Google had been taken to task recently when reports surfaced that its fleet of self-driving cars had been involved in various accidents during years of testing on the streets of the company's Silicon Valley hometown of Mountain View, Calif.
The site represents a swift reversal of a stance taken by Google co-founder Sergey Brin on Wednesday at a shareholders' meeting Wednesday, where he defended the company's decision not to reveal accident details in order to protect the humans at fault.
Though nothing "can be perfect," Brin said, "our goal is to beat human drivers."
Brin was confronted at the meeting on the reporting issue by Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project director John Simpson, who, while allowing that Google's new site is a step in the right direction, feels the company should pursue even greater levels of disclosure.
"Google is dribbling out bits information in the hope to silence legitimate calls for full transparency," says Simpson. "They are testing on public roads and the public has a right to know exactly what happened when something goes wrong."
In addition to detailing any accidents (with human-driver details redacted), the site will give examples of how the cars, which by law are still accompanied by a Google driver, adapt to everyday traffic situations, and it will provide a forum for community feedback.
Google is slated to begin testing its pod-like driverless cars on city streets this summer, while continuing to gather data and other metrics through its fleet of heavily modified Lexus SUVs. After nearly six years of testing and 1.8 million miles driven, the Google fleet has been involved in 13 accidents, according to reports the company submitted to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
In a recent blog post, Google self-driving car project leader Chris Urmson noted that all of the accidents were the fault of other drivers and not the overly cautious driverless cars. A number of the incidents involved motorists rear-ending the Google cars at stop lights.
"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," Urmson wrote. "We've been hit from behind seven times, mainly at traffic lights but also on the freeway. We've also been sideswiped a couple of times and hit by a car rolling through a stop sign."
Urmson reported that Google's chaperon drivers have noticed a range of distracted driving behavior over the years. "Our safety drivers routinely see people weaving in and out of their lanes," he wrote. "We've spotted people reading books, and even one playing a trumpet."
The first monthly report provides insights into the cars' learning capabilities and details in words and screen shots how they are able to detect and make adjustments for the behavior of emergency vehicles (which often do not obey traffic signals) as well as take note of cyclists merging into car lanes at night.
"A cyclist on the left had entered the left turn lane but veered back into our path to continue straight across the intersection," the post notes. "At the same time, the cyclist on the right entered the intersection, traveling against the flow of traffic. That cyclist then took a sudden left turn, coming directly at us in our lane.
"Our car was able to predict that cyclist's path of travel (turquoise line with circles), so we stopped and yielded. This happened at night, when it would have been very difficult for a human driver to see what was unfolding."
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