Why self-driving cars are crashing: humans

October 9, 2015, 9:40 PM UTC
One of Google's self-driving cars.
One of Google's self-driving cars.
Courtesy: Google

In the automatons vs. humans face-off, the robots just scored another point: Documents released on Friday show that in all motor vehicle accidents involving self-driving cars in California, a human driver was to blame in every case. And while Google’s autonomous cars were involved in most of those crashes, the Mountain View-based technology company recently announced that its vehicles did not have a single mishap in September.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles posted the incident reports for the nine traffic accidents it has recorded involving a self-driving car. In eight of those cases, a Google (GOOG) vehicle was the victim of some sort of fender bender (or in one incident, mirror swipe). In one accident the Google self-driving car had already been stopped at a traffic light for 17 seconds before it was rear-ended.

The ninth traffic accident involved an Audi with self-driving capabilities made by Delphi Automotive Systems, though at the time of the crash, it was on “conventional mode” with a live person at the wheel. Still, the DMV’s accident report made clear that the collision was the fault of the other driver in the non-autonomous Honda, who “was determined to have caused the accident by making an unsafe turning movement.”

Google recently started disclosing the details of its self-driving car crashes in monthly accident reports; its vehicles have had 16 “minor accidents” in the six years they have been on the roads, according to the company. The search engine giant also says that of the “thousands of minor accidents” occurring daily among vehicles of all types, 94% of them are “involving human error.”

Indeed, as portrayed in the California DMV reports, Google’s autonomous cars seem to be pretty cautious drivers. One report repeatedly describes Google’s self-driving car as “creeping forward;” another mentions that a Google test-driver only took manual control of the car “out of an abundance of caution.”

That might be a lesson to the humans responsible for the fender benders: The driver that caused the Honda accident, for one, was required to have his license reexamined, according to the report.

Meanwhile, some safety advocates were skeptical of whether the self-driving cars were as blameless as the traffic reports made them out to be. “The Department [of Motor Vehicles] relies completely on the testing company’s account of what happened,” the organization Consumer Watchdog said in a statement. “With the public’s safety at stake, it’s imperative that a neutral third party investigates any accident involving a robot car.”

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