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Here’s Why Self-Driving Cars Can Cause Accidents, Too


Here’s Why Self-Driving Cars Can Cause Accidents, Too


Self-driving cars have the potential to change the world. After all, without anyone behind the wheel, they will reduce crashes, boost productivity, and make millions of people’s commute all the better — and much safer.

In fact, consulting firm McKinsey & Co. has predicted that fully autonomous vehicles may save as many as 300,000 lives each decade — and that’s in the U.S. alone. A reduction in car crashes would not only be a life saver but it could also aid the U.S. economy. McKinsey estimates that car crashes cost the U.S. economy $212 billion in 2012 and that self-driving cars could have the potential to save the economy around $190 billion a year. It can also free up 50 minutes per day which has all sorts of positive implications for productivity, stress, and leisure. And then there’s parking: If the world jumps into shared self-driving cars they won’t have to worry about finding a parking spot on congested roads.

But self-driving cars, similarly to fuel, hybrid, and electric cars, are not infallible. And while they do bring a lot of promise, including to the environment, they cause crashes too, some minor and others fatal. From a Tesla crash in Florida that resulted in the death of the driver to a Google self-driving car fender bender in Mountain View, California, here’s a look a three self-driving car crashes that may give proponents at least a little pause as the world marches toward an autonomous car driving future.

Three Self-Driving Car Crashes That Should Give You Pause

Tesla Model S Electric Car Driver Killed by Sun Spot

One of the early leaders in the self-driving car market is Tesla, the maker of electric vehicles including its flagship Model S sedan. While the vehicle isn’t 100% autonomous, it does have self-driving features built in, including a self-driving mode. The self-driving mode is designed to make life easier for the driver, but a flaw in the system resulted in a driver’s death in May of 2016 in Williston, Florida. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the accident occurred on a Florida highway when a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of the Model S but the Tesla failed to automatically apply the brakes, killing Joshua Brown, a 45-year old Navy veteran, and owner of a technology consulting firm. It marked the first time a person died in a car accident in which the car was driving itself.

Tesla had warned that its Autopilot system wasn’t 100% perfect and that the system should only be used on highways with clear markings, medians and exit and entrance ramps. Since the accident, Tesla has improved upon the autopilot system that was controlling the vehicle when it crashed. The NHTSA initially ruled that Brown was at fault because he should have been monitoring the vehicle’s self-driving but found last September that Tesla shares some of the blame for selling vehicles that have a system that enables misuse. “While automation in highway transportation has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives, until that potential is fully realized, people still need to safely drive their vehicles,” NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt III said in the fall of last year. “The combined effects of human error and the lack of sufficient system controls resulted in a fatal collision that should not have happened.”

Self-Driving Car Hits Motorbike in San Francisco

Fully autonomous cars aren’t on the roads en masse yet, but in order to see that dream become a reality, most car manufacturers are working on that. Ford has a goal to have its first self-driving car on the road by 2021 while General Motors is gearing up to launch a self-driving ridesharing service in 2019.

Technology companies are also in the race, gearing up to have their own autonomous vehicles on the roads alongside GM and Ford. But in order to make that happen, the car companies and technology providers have to test out their futuristic vehicles and they have to do it on real streets and roads. After all, if it’s tested in a secluded area without traffic and distractions, the manufacturer won’t be able to see how these vehicles stand up in real life situations.

As a result, accidents will happen. Just ask the owner of a motorbike in San Francisco who was involved in an accident with a self-driving Chevrolet Bolt in early  December. The motorcyclist Oscar Nilsson is now suing the car company in what is the first lawsuit involving a self-driving vehicle. According to the lawsuit, Nilsson contends that the vehicle, operating in an autonomous mode with a backup driver behind the wheel “suddenly veered back into Nilsson’s lane, striking Nilsson and knocking him to the ground.” The accident occurred in the Hayes Valley district of San Francisco. The GM vehicle was reportedly going 12 miles per hour while the motorcycle was going at a speed of 17 miles per hour.

While Nilsson is suing, the accident report at the time puts the blame on the motorcyclist, not the self-driving car. “As the Cruise AV was re-centering itself in the lane, a motorcycle that had just lane-split between two vehicles in the centre and right lanes moved into the centre lane, glanced the side of the Cruise AV, wobbled and fell over. The motorcyclist was determined to be at fault for attempting to overtake and pass another vehicle on the right under conditions that did not permit that movement in safety,” the report stated. Nilsson walked away from the accident but claims he has neck and shoulder injuries as a result. He also says he had to take off time from work and is seeking damages in his lawsuit.

Google’s Self-Driving Lexus SUV Hits a Bus

Self-driving vehicle technology hasn’t been perfected yet, although a lot of advances are being made. One example of the imperfect nature of it came in the fall of 2016 when a  Lexus SUV, filled with Google self-driving technology, hit a public bus, thankfully at a low speed on the streets of Mountain View, California.

According to the incident report, the self-driving Lexus SUV was doing a good job getting around traffic and stopping at the intersection. The SUV got into trouble when trying to get back into the lane after maneuvering around sandbags, ending up hitting the side of the bus. The Google self-driving car tester saw the bus approaching but assumed the bus would stop or slow down. The SUV was in autonomous mode when the crash happened. There were no injuries associated with that fender bender but it does underscore how the technology hasn’t been perfected yet.

Final Thoughts

Autonomous vehicles will someday be a reality, reducing traffic congestion, increasing safety, boosting productivity and helping the environment. But these systems aren’t perfect and can get into accidents too. As the industry runs more trials, includes more technology and makes enhancements to their self-driving efforts, the vehicles will get to the point someday where they can operate better than mere humans but until then, drivers still need to pay attention.

Article written by

Nancy Cable

Nancy is an avid technophile, passionate about all things innovation and AI. She spends her days reading, writing, and, when she’s not playing with the written word, she’s tinkering — taking apart and never putting back together — with the remote control alongside her husband and two children.


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