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For the First Time, a Self-Driving Car Accepts Fault in Crash

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on March 03, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Well, it has finally happened. In a first, the maker of a self-driving car has accepted that their autonomous vehicle might be liable for a collision with a more traditional auto.

The revelation comes after a Google self-driving car drove right into it's human-operated kin this Valentine's Day. And that the little ding could have major implications for the future.

What Happened

The fender bender took place, fittingly, in Silicon Valley, when a Google self-driving car caused a crash with a city bus in Mountain View, California. According to the accident report, a Google autonomous vehicle was traveling down El Camino Real in Mountain View. When it attempted to make a right on red, it found its path blocked by sandbags surrounding the storm drain. (Thanks for the rain, El Niño.) It waited till the light turned green and attempted to navigate around the bags, crossing into the center lane and into the path of the bus, which ran into the Google car's side.

The Google car was in autonomous mode throughout, traveling at less than 2 mph. The bus had a human in charge, and was moving 15 mph. Google's test cars have human drivers ready to take over, but the driver -- and apparently the car's AI -- assumed the bus would slow down to allow them to turn.

Why It Matters

Google has long held out that it's cars were virtually accident-proof. In the over 16 accidents Google cars have been in, the company has placed blame on the other driver every time.

When California drafted the nation's first self-driving car regulations, Google protested. Those rules required a human driver and conventional intervention devices like a steering wheel and breaks. But Google's vision of the future is truly autonomous: there are no drivers, no steering wheels, and no brake pedals.

So, Google's reaction signals a pretty large shift. The tech giant acknowledged at least some fault for the accident. On Monday, the company released a statement saying that "we clearly bear some responsibility, because if our car hadn't moved there wouldn't have been a collision."

Iterating Safety, One Accident at a Time

The California Department of Motor Vehicles and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority are investigating the accident, but Google is already spinning the crash as a learning moment.

The company stated it is currently looking into the incident "and thousands of variations on it in our simulator in detail and made refinements to our software. From now on, our cars will more deeply understand that buses (and other large vehicles) are less likely to yield to us than other types of vehicles, and we hope to handle situations like this more gracefully in the future."

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