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Driverless car causes its first accident: How will Google respond?

For tech enthusiasts, Google's self-driving car has seemed to show the way to a utopian future for personal transportation. A car controlled by sensors and software would free humans from the task of driving - and be a lot safer too.

Last month, however, the driverless car caused its first accident. How did that happen? And how is it likely to affect ongoing efforts to bring self-driving cars into everyday use?

Refusal to yield

Google has been working on the development of self-driving cars for several years now. There are numerous cars, driving a total of about 15,000 miles a week on public roads.

These test drives aren't restricted to roads in remote rural areas. As Google tries to refine the technology, driverless cars are now in urban areas such as Mountain View, California.

It was in Mountain View last month that the driverless car caused its first accident. A self-driving SUV tried to merge in front of a city bus because there was an obstruction in the lane ahead. But the driver of the bus didn't reduce speed to allow this. The self-driving car then turned into the side of bus.

Fortunately, no one was injured. But it was the first car accident caused by one of Google's self-driving cars, after a more than 1.4 million miles of test driving. And it raises questions about how Google will respond to prevent other accidents.

Google's response

Google acknowledged a degree of fault in the accident. The fault was that the autopilot software misjudged the response of the bus driver to the self-driving car's attempt to merge.

Google pledged to tweak its software so that self-driving cars are more aware of large vehicles. But this is not really a comforting solution, because the act of refusing to yield is a very human reaction. It could happen regardless of the size of the vehicle that the driverless car is trying to share the roadway with.

In other words, the minor accident in Mountain View may call attention to a much larger issue: the complexity of the act of driving a motor vehicle.

Driving is an act that involves numerous split-second decisions requiring knowledge and judgment. These are decisions that cannot necessarily be offloaded to computer effectively.

When accidents happen

If a driverless car can cause a fender-bender, it stands to reason that it can also cause a more serious one. Indeed, engineers, computer scientists and other experts believe that it's just a matter of time before a driverless car causes a fatal accident.

In short, driverless cars aren't likely to create a utopia on the roads anytime soon, if at all. If you were injured in a car crash and are concerned about your rights, it makes sense to get sound legal counsel.

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