February 14, 2016 was a first for Google’s self-driving car, but not a complete success. Rather it involved the right side of a Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority bus hit near Google headquarters in Silicon Valley by a self-driving Lexus RX450h attempting to navigate around some sandbags in a wide lane at a speed of 2 mph.
The bus was reportedly going only 15 mph, but the collision damaged the side and front of the Lexus. A report released by California’s Department of Motor Vehicles said that Google’s self-driving Lexus and its test driver “believed the bus would slow or allow the Google vehicle to continue.” No one suffered injury and the car was eventually towed.
This first is unlikely to gain the infamy of the ‘first’ that occurred on August 17, 1896, when Mrs. Bridgette Driscol of Croydon entered the history books as the first pedestrian fatality in the UK prompting, as folklore would have it, Coroner Morrison to say at the inquest into her death— “This must never happen again.” (Mr. Morrison is also credited with being the first Coroner to apply the term “accident” to a death caused by a speeding vehicle.)
Nevertheless the Croydon ‘first’ came to mind on hearing Google say to CNBC, “In this case, we clearly bear some responsibility, because if our car hadn’t moved there wouldn’t have been a collision. … “From now on, [as a result of software changes] 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.”
In other words, this test failure will at least have prompted the development of one more self-driving algorithm in the already massive set of self-driving algorithms Google is developing that should ensure this type of incident will not, in fact, happen again. …And isn’t this just the whole point of the self-driving car—that it will usher in the long hoped for ‘zero-crash’ future? Reports of this incident add that while other Google cars have been involved in incidents, this may be the first time the company has admitted any fault, that all of the [other] 17 accidents in Google driverless cars since January  have been caused by human error— but that Google still believes the cars will be road-ready by 2020.
In furtherance of this belief, Google has reportedly responded to a US Department of Transportation invitation for industry input on ways to speed self-driving technology to public roads—provided it is proven to be safe—by asking Congress to create new federal powers that would give it “special, expedited permission to bring to market a self-driving car that has no steering wheel or pedals.”
A self-driving vehicle is currently not permitted under U.S. federal regulation. Google, however, has been testing just such a vehicle (presumably under appropriate human supervision) on public roads in California and elsewhere, and believes it will be ready sooner than the public expects, and in pushing for this regulatory change is demonstrating confidence in the technology’s safety and readiness.