Over the past six years, Google claims that its self-driving cars have been involved in 11 “minor” accidents with light damage and no injuries. More importantly, it says its autonomous vehicles were never the cause of the crash. And it only took one report from the Associated Press for Google to finally release the figures.
It’s a strange coincidence.
The same day the AP, citing anonymous sources, reported that four of the 50 self-driving vehicles licensed in California have been involved in crashes, Chris Urmson, the director of Google’s self-driving car program, decided to try and clear the air about the accident rate of the company’s autonomous vehicles.
Urmson took to Medium’s Backchannel – the new voice of access journalism in technology – to provide a top-down view of the project by framing it in the context of humans screwing up.
He rightly points out that the low-speed, urban crashes are the most common, and often aren’t reported to the police. Urmson also tells us what we already know: that intersections are dangerous, people aren’t paying attention to the road, and some drivers can’t even manage to make a turn into the correct lane.
But that’s the kind of stuff you’d expect Google to find while it’s working on fully autonomous vehicles. Instead, Urmson’s post was just a way to reframe the discussion while dropping in some official Google stats on the crashes it’s been involved in.
Over the course of 1.7 million miles logged by Google’s cars – both autonomously and manually – its 20-plus self-driving car army have been involved in 11 crashes. Seven of those have been rear-end collisions (the most common in the U.S.), while the others included being “side-swiped a couple of times and hit by a car rolling through a stop sign,” Urmson writes.
“We have a detailed review process and try to learn something from each incident, even if it hasn’t been our fault,” says Urmson. But what it apparently hasn’t done is release information about all of those crashes, until now.
“Since September, any accident must be reported to the state Department of Motor Vehicles,” wrote the AP. “The agency said there have been four, but would not comment about fault or anything else, citing California law that collision reports are confidential.”
Despite that law, it was divulged that one of those accidents involved Delphi’s autonomous Audi SQ5, which was hit while making a left turn, but wasn’t in autonomous mode.
The other three crashes involved Google’s self-driving vehicles, which – based on its own figures – leaves eight unreported accidents since the program began in 2009.
Google hasn’t been required to report any crashes prior to September, and the fact that it’s coming out with these statistics now is a solid step. But transparency in the development of self-driving cars is key, and waiting for the AP to ring Google’s PR for comment and then going into spin mode isn’t the way to push the game forward, even if the car and its brace of sensors and computers wasn’t at fault.