Local Consumers Group Questions Safety Of Google’s Driverless Cars

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May 13, 2015 — While tech companies scramble to develop a new generation of driverless cars, one local consumer advocacy group says not so fast.

Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog on Tuesday raised safety concerns about the budding technology and called on Google to provide the public with details of 11 collisions involving Google’s conceptual driverless cars.

The nonprofit group also released a video it says reveals the “shortcomings of driverless car technology.” The video can be viewed at http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/

 “Google has admitted to 11 crashes involving its robot cars but refuses to reveal the details,” said John M. Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project. “Google is using our roads as a test track, and the public has a right to know when things go wrong.”

Simpson said it learned about Google’s driverless car reports only after Consumer Watchdog filed a Public Records Act request in March seeking Department of Motor Vehicles data on all driverless car crash reports. DMV officials refused to release the reports, saying the information was confidential, said Simpson.

So last week, the nonprofit wrote to Google executives asking the company to release the crash reports, he said.

It wasn’t until The Associated Press ran an article this week about Google’s driverless car crashes that the company acknowledged there have been 11 so far, said Simpson.

His group wants the DMV to require “that human drivers have the ability to take over control of the robot car if necessary.”

But Google is working toward developing a car without a steering wheel, brake pedal or accelerator, Simpson said.

 “Driverless car technology is evolving and there are many situations Google’s robot cars cannot deal with. People need to know that,” said Simpson.

Chris Urmson, who is in charge of Google’s experimental vehicles project, acknowledged in a blog this week that there continue to be engineering challenges with driverless cars but said Google is focused on safety as it tests the new technology.

 “As we continue to work toward our vision of fully self-driving vehicles than can take anyone from Point A to Point B at the push of a button, we’re thinking a lot about how to measure our progress and our impact on road safety,” Urmson wrote.

One of Google’s main goals is to remove driver error as a factor in major collision.

While the company has seen some success in that area, Urmson said, some minor crashes, particularly rear-end collisions — the most frequent type of crash in the U.S. — are almost impossible to avoid.

 “We’ve been hit from behind seven times, mainly at traffic lights but also on the freeway,” said Urmson. “We’ve also been side-swiped a couple of times and hit by a car rolling through a stop sign.”

Collisions involving its driverless cars have provided Google with valuable data on drivers’ habits, he said.

 “We have a detailed review process and try to learn something from each incident, even if it hasn’t been our fault,” said Urmson.

But in their video, Consumer Watchdog officials point out that the sensors on driverless cars can go out during heavy rain storms or in bright sunshine. The cars also have trouble distinguishing human hand signals and are unable to detect large potholes, among other problems.

 “There are just too many variables on the actual roads,” said Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court in the video. “If it’s not on the map, the robot car might not see it.”

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