A Tesla Model S and one of Google’s autonomous cars were apparently involved in a crash recently in California, according to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles website, thus raising the important question — what exactly happens when these two technologies meet?
The autonomous Google car in this case appears to have been a retrofitted Lexus (RX450h), which, interestingly, wasn’t actually in autonomous mode when the crash occurred. What seems to have happened is that the autonomous car began to slow when approaching an intersection that a pedestrian was traveling across; as this was occurring, the driver/tester decided to disengage the autonomous system “out of an abundance of caution” and another vehicle (the Tesla Model S) that was in the process of changing lanes at this time then struck Google’s autonomous car from behind. Google’s car was traveling at 5 miles per hour at the time of the impact, and the Model S was traveling at 10 miles per hour. (Specifics can be found here.)
Interestingly, one of the people traveling in the Google car reported some back pain and was taken to a hospital before being release shortly thereafter, while the Tesla Model S driver was apparently uninjured. The Tesla Model S did end up having to be towed, though — as a result of there being some moderate damage to the front-end — while the autonomous-drive Google Lexus apparently sustained only minor damage to the rear left bumper. For what it’s worth here, the accident occurred at 9:36 AM — so, while still being fairly early in the day, the accident certainly did not occur during the hours of “early morning mental haze” that many such commuters are afflicted with.
There were some interesting comments made on this matter on the Tesla Motors Club forum (thanks “electrish”). Here are a couple:
“Cyclone” commented: “We should mention that the report indicates the Google vehicle was being manually driven when it was hit. That said, as to why in general Google AVs are rear-ended, it is because they actually drive safe and decide not to run over pedestrians or bicycles (the former being what happened this time).”
And “ibdb” commented: “The stories this week have all been about how Google was looking to make their autonomous cars drive more like people. The apparent issue is that they’ve been overly conservative and cautious in questionable situations. If an autonomous car stops unexpectedly out of an abundance of caution in a situation where a driver might only have slowed or turned around an obstacle, you can understand why the incidence of rear-end collisions would be higher.”
Probably true, which means that once (if?) autonomous vehicles make up the vast majority of cars on the road, these sorts of accidents will diminish greatly — they are, after all, essentially the result of human error. That’s not to say that autonomous vehicles couldn’t be the cause of accidents that are completely their own fault, but simply that these sort of somewhat common rear collisions are mostly the result of human drivers not leaving enough space between them and the car in front of them. As far as autonomous vehicles themselves directly causing accidents…. Well, we’ll have to wait and see on that count.
Speaking as someone who’s lived in regions with large numbers of very old people who simply are not good drivers (and who are often drugged out of their heads on prescription meds), I’m personally guessing that, when taken as a whole, autonomous driving technologies will notably reduce the number of auto accidents, rather than increase them.
Given the large number of people killed every year in auto accidents caused directly by human negligence, it would not be difficult to be a better driver than most humans are. Perhaps even a computer can do a better job (as the proponents claim). If nothing else, autonomous driving technologies are presumably going to be focused on the task at hand, rather than on texting or taking selfies.
Those looking for more information on Google’s autonomous vehicle program/technology, on the interactions between Google and Tesla, and on the safety performance of the Model S, may want to see:
- Google Expanding Autonomous Electric Vehicle Fleet
- Driving Into The Future… Google Now Building Self-Driving Cars
- Google Car May Be Nearing Production
- Apple Hires Top Tesla Autonomous Driving Engineer
- Elon Musk Calls Apple The “Tesla Graveyard,” Then Responds To Backlash… Twice
- Tesla Model S — Safest Car Ever!! Breaks Safety Testing Equipment
- Morgan Stanley Analyst Predicts Tesla To Offer “Uber Like” Service Before Model 3 Unveiled