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Driver Or Car To Blame For Google Car Crash?

August 7, 2011

An accident involving one of Google’s self-driving cars last week may have been caused by human error, but the incident has not stopped technology experts from expressing their doubts and concerns surrounding the technology involved.

The incident occurred near the company’s Mountain View, California headquarters, Paul Suarez of PCWorld reported on Friday. It was a minor fender-bender when a Toyota Prius equipped with the Google self-driving technology rear-ended a second Prius.

NBC Bay Area’s online coverage of the accident included an interview with an eye-witness to the accident, a woman named Tiffany Winkelman, who reports that not only did the Google Prius collide with a second Prius, but the force of the collision propelled the second Prius into the Honda Accord in which she was a passenger, and pushed it into a fourth vehicle as well.

Initially, several media outlets reported that the accident was the first caused by Google’s self-driving car, which prompted the company to release a statement assuring that the car had been flipped into manual mode during the time of the wreck, making it the fault of the driver.

“Striking a car with enough force to trigger a four-car chain reaction suggests the Google car was moving at a decent clip,” Justin Hyde of Jalopnik reported Friday. “Google says it’s unable to provide us with a copy of any official accident report, but that may be the only way to know what happened for sure.”

“This is precisely why we’re worried about self-driving cars,” Hyde added, pointing out that Google “has never answered the question of who’s ultimately responsible for any accidents that happen while the software controls the vehicle.”

“Google can’t be hoping to have its software legally blamed for a slice of the traffic crashes that cost more than $160 billion a year in this country,” he pointed out. “Yet if the operators of Google’s self-driving cars retain all legal responsibility, simply turning the system on would be seen in court as a sign they weren’t paying attention.”

In an article dated August 5 Chris Matyszczyk of CNET also raised the question of whether or not the person behind the wheel should automatically be assumed to be at fault just because the car was operating in manual mode at the time of the crash.

“Is it unreasonable to imagine that the human who was ‘driving’ stepped in because the robot was, well, having a moment?” he asked, suggesting that the driver may have assumed control of the car in a last ditch effort to try and avoid the collision.

He reportedly contacted Google, asking them for more details of the crash in order to prove “that a careless human brought needless embarrassment to one of the world’s most progressive companies. Or not.” Google responded to his request by merely reiterating that the car was in manual mode at the time of the crash, without further explanation as to what actually occurred at the time of the wreck.

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