There are still many questions that need answering about self-driving cars. Will they gain intelligence and take over the planet? Will they brake for small animals and potholes? And what, exactly, are they going to do about cows?
But the question closest to the heart of the average driver is, of course, "Are they safe?" The ability of autonomous vehicles to interact with non-autonomous ones won't be entirely clear until they're in mainstream use, but Associated Press got an answer of a kind this week when they collected data on how many accidents the vehicles have been in so far.
AP found that Google's self-driving cars have been in 11 accidents on Californian roads over the past six years of testing. Unfortunately, the state's Department of Motor Vehicles would not release further details on the accidents, so their nature or severity isn't known for certain.
However, Chris Urmson, director of the Google car program, outlined in a blog post that the accidents had all been minor, resulting in "light damage" and no injuries. He also pointed out that these occured over 1.7m miles of testing, and only four out of the 50 cars on the road have had any accidents at all. Here's his breakdown of the fender benders so far:
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; we’ve been hit from behind seven times, mainly at traffic lights but also on the freeway. We’ve also been side-swiped a couple of times and hit by a car rolling through a stop sign. And as you might expect, we see more accidents per mile driven on city streets than on freeways; we were hit eight times in many fewer miles of city driving.
All the crazy experiences we’ve had on the road have been really valuable for our project. We have a detailed review process and try to learn something from each incident, even if it hasn’t been our fault.
So in summary, these "crazy experiences" were all the fault of humans, not the cars themselves. Looks like we've been worrying about the wrong road users.