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Google begins reporting robocar wrecks

Following demands from consumer-advocacy groups for more transparency, the tech giant launches a website devoted to its self-driving cars and will begin publishing monthly reports that include accident info.

An image from Google's new website devoted to its robocars. The site includes info on accidents involving the vehicles. (Click to enlarge.) Google

Google has launched a website devoted to its robocars that, among other things, reports accidents involving the vehicles. That's a shift in position for the tech giant, which previously had intended not to reveal incident details.

The website, launched Friday, will provide information on any accidents without revealing the identity of the human drivers who are required by law to ride along in the cars. The site also provides a general overview of Google's robocar program and how the vehicles behave and adapt in daily traffic.

During Google's shareholder meeting Wednesday, company co-founder Sergey Brin had still insisted on keeping this information private to protect the human drivers involved in the accidents. "We don't claim that the cars are going to be perfect. Our goal is to beat human drivers," Brin said during the meeting. "Nothing can be a perfect vehicle. I just wanted to set that expectation."

Google's change regarding accident reporting indicates that the company has taken seriously the demand of consumer-advocacy groups for more transparency.

The company's first monthly report on the cars (PDF) covers May but also gives accident information that stretches back to the project's beginnings in 2009. Since their initial appearance, the report says, the robocars have logged more than 1.8 million miles of autonomous and manual driving combined and have been involved in 12 minors accidents, none of which was their fault. A 13th accident occurred Thursday, when one of the robocars was rear-ended. That's apparently the eighth time a from-behind fender-bender has happened -- a May 11 blog post published by Chris Urmson, leader of the robocar project, notes that seven of the incidents up till then involved Google cars being hit from the rear.

"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."

The monthly report for May also highlights how the cars are, in general, overly cautious and able to predict and avoid accidents in conditions where human drivers can't.

Google's prototype vehicles will leave their initial test phase in the rear-view mirror this summer and take to the public roadways of the company's hometown of Mountain View, Calif.

Self-driving cars are still a rarity and have largely been limited to testing facilities and other controlled conditions. But they are a seemingly inevitable next wave of technology that consumers and businesses will have to reckon with. Major automakers from Ford to Audi to Nissan have all been experimenting with autonomous vehicles, and many standard-issue models are now equipped with robotic skills including lane control and collision control and the ability to parallel-park themselves.