11 crashes and 1m miles: Google now unleashes its very own self-driving car on public road

Google’s driverless cars have been involved in 11 accidents during their million miles on the road – and that’s actually not bad going. With Google about to put its cars on the road, can the public feel safe sharing the roadways with driverless cars? See also: How Google’s self-driving cars work

Set to release this summer onto the roads of Mountain View, California, Google is understandably confident in its bug-eyed little cars. Running on the same software that powered Google’s autonomous Lexus SUVs, Google’s roadworthy self-driving cars have just under one million miles under their belt. According to Google’s blog, this is the equivalent of 75 years of typical American driving experience – so Google’s autonomous vehicles know the roads better than a Mountain View taxi driver.

As with all self-driving cars, safety is the primary concern – after all, why replace a human driver with a robot if it’s more dangerous? To help calm the nerves of other road users, Google is rolling out its first road cars with a “safety driver” behind the wheel for good measure. Each driver is equipped with a removeable steering wheel, as well as brake and accelerator pedals if they need to take control.

While this could be perceived as Google not trusting its own tech, it’s worth acknowledging just how important that 75 years of driving experience really is. It’s clear that a wealth of road knowledge is always beneficial, but if a human had 75 years of experience we’d be cowering as they drove past: their deteriorated sight and impaired hearing and reaction times make them a complete risk for road users.

A self-driving car doesn’t have this problem. In fact, the more time it spends driving, the more it learns about the road and other road users. Thankfully, Google hasn’t equipped its cars with road rage modules, so that there will be no rage-fuelled accidents when another driver cuts you up or tailgates you.

But what about those 11 accidents?

I can hear that figure reverberating around your mind – how can you possibly trust something autonomous if it’s been involved in an accident? Eleven accidents, no less!

Google has admitted that its cars were involved in 11 minor traffic accidents, but that’s over the six years since it began experimenting with the technology. Are these bumps and scrapes anything to worry about? If you ask Google, no.

“Not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident ,” wrote Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving car project. Although it’s unclear how to define the word “cause”, it appears that almost all of the accidents were other cars driving into the back of, or sideswiping, Google’s vehicles.

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It’s hard to tell who exactly was at fault, as US law states that road-traffic accident reports remain confidential. It’s worth remembering, though, that we saw 1,700 deaths from road-related accidents in the UK in 2013 alone. If, over six years and one million miles, the worst incident Google’s self-driving cars sustained was a bump to the rear, then it has to be a far better alternative to putting a human behind the wheel.

But, as Urmson points out, understanding how self-driving cars work on the road is an important step for driverless communities. While they can react faster than human drivers, some situations are unavoidable.

It seems unlikely you’ll have to worry about Google’s cars when they hit the road later this year. For one, they’re restricted to California’s Mountain View, but they’ll also be capped at just 25mph.

Google has been the most vocal, and open, company in regards to pushing self-driving car development. There’s now a whole host of others looking to replicate the company’s technology. With Google’s self-driving cars now on the road, it marks the start of a tangible driverless future, instead of one still shrouded in science-fiction dreams.

We know very little about Google’s plans for the UK, but it seems likely that – given a few years – we could see its cars on British roads. While the tighter lanes, country roads and perplexing roundabouts might throw up some issues, and even with 11 minor accidents under its belt, it’s clear that Google’s driverless cars put us one step closer to safer roads.

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