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When self-driving cars go bump in the street

Technically Incorrect: A smattering of the self-driving cars on California roads have been involved in incidents in the last six months. None of them, say their manufacturers, were the fault of the cars.


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A Delphi self-driving car. Blameless, according to its manufacturer. CNET

Cars don't cause accidents. People cause accidents.

This is the hope and dream (and, surely, motto) of those involved in designing self-driving cars.

The whole idea is built on the nerds' rational nirvana in which incidents below perfection must be the fault of the imperfect human.

I'm wondering about this because of an AP report that declares four self-driving cars have been involved in accidents in California since September. I couldn't decide whether this was an important or insignificant proportion, until I discovered that there had been around 50 self-driving cars on California's roads during that time.

A quick mustering of the math tells me that these incident-affected cars represent around 8 percent of all the the self-driving cars on the road.

I fancy that's a significant number, but also one that may not prove anything.

Three of the cars belonged to Google and one to Delphi, the auto parts company that in March set one of its self-driving cars to drive itself across America.

I contacted both companies to ask about the circumstances of these incidents.

A Delphi spokeswoman told me: "We have not had any accidents involving any of our test vehicles while in automated mode. There was, however, an accident in October 2014 involving one Delphi automated vehicle [that] had nothing to do with automated driving. While operating in manual mode and stopped at an intersection, our car was struck by another vehicle that traveled across the median. A police report indicates the fault of the accident is with the second vehicle. Not Delphi. A police report filed in Mountain View confirms this."

Google referred me to a new post from Chris Urmson, director of its self-driving program. He insisted that Google's cars have a much better reaction time than do humans.

And he cited statistics, of course: "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."

Perfection is a beautiful thing for an engineer.

He who hesitates is bumped

Urmson said that Google's self-driving cars have been hit seven times from behind, as well as a higher number of routine incidents when driving in cities.

He explained that the company's cars are programmed to pause a little longer at intersections, because people behave especially badly there. In essence, his post smacks of an engineer's frustration that human beings are so maddeningly unpredictable.

A Google spokeswoman clarified that of the 1.7 million miles Urmson referred to, almost 1 million were while a vehicle was in autonomous mode.

Looking at the high proportion of self-driving cars involved in accidents may not be helpful, as so many minor accidents simply aren't reported at all by clumsy, embarrassed and insurance-dodging humans. Google, by contrast, must disclose all accidents to the DMV.

By the way, none of Google's self-driving cars goes on the road without a driver in it.

Clearly, as self-driving car technology is thrust headlong into our lives, there will be a gestation period in which more accidents will happen. Those at or near the controls of self-driving cars will make mistakes. There will surely be technological failures too.

Google not only trumpets the safety of its cars, but also the idea of greater efficiency, leading to less personal car ownership, fewer deaths and traffic jams, and a diminution in the number of parking lots.

Less often discussed is the ultimate goal of ensuring that humans never drive again. Indeed, the ever ambitious Elon Musk predicted recently that self-driving cars will be the norm in 20 years time.

We have no idea how this might feel, because we have no idea how much and how rapidly technological change will affect us even in the near future.

Once upon a time we talked on something called a phone. Now we take calls on our watches, even though it looks ridiculous.

The more we rely on the likes of Uber for getting around, the more the mere notion of driving being exhilarating may fade.

Then we'll be happy to be passengers, hoping that technology carries us safely to our destinations. Because technology is smarter than we are, isn't it?