Who's Really to Blame for Robot-Human Crashes? Are We Really Such Awful Drivers?

Michael Accardi
by Michael Accardi
whos really to blame for robot human crashes are we really such awful drivers

(In keeping with our promise to share thought-provoking fodder with our readers, we sometimes run articles published by TTAC’s sister sites. This look at recent crashes involving self-driving Chevrolet Bolts, penned by GM Inside News head honcho Michael Accardi, touches on a number of themes we’ve explored in these pages. Are humans really to blame for all of the accidents involving “perfectly safe” autonomous vehicles, or is the real picture not as crystal clear? Read on.)

The autonomous Chevrolet Bolts GM’s self-driving startup has running around San Francisco have been involved in 22 accidents during 2017 – none of which were the software’s fault (legally, that is).

Cruise Automation has been using a fleet of self-driving Chevrolet Bolts to log autonomous miles in an urban environment since GM purchased the company for more than $1 billion in 2016. When you’re trying to disrupt personal transportation as we know it and develop a new technology standard, there are bound to be a few incidents.

But this hybrid model of humans and algorithms sharing the road is more complex than simply apportioning blame based on the law, isn’t it? None of the 22 incidents involving GM’s Cruise fleet were serious, but a majority of them were caused by a fundamental difference in the way autonomous and human drivers react.

In June, an autonomous Bolt traveling at 7 mph on Van Ness Avenue “decelerated” in response to a bus pulling away from the curb ahead, which led a white minivan to run into the back of it.

While accelerating away from a light on September 18, a vehicle in the right lane weaved within its own lane without crossing into the AV’s lane. The software responded by abruptly decelerating, and a 1984 BMW 633 CSi also accelerating towards the intersection countered by rear-ending it.

On October 12, a Bolt AV was startled by a pedestrian on the sidewalk approaching the crosswalk whilst browsing their smartphone. As the car crossed into the intersection, the algorithm decided to immediately decelerate just in case the person jumped into oncoming traffic. As a result, the Toyota Corolla following hit it from behind.

Six days later, a scooter merging from a right turn lane in front of an autonomous Bolt caused the car to stop in the middle of an intersection, resulting in a collision with an oncoming Subaru Impreza that had already begun turning left in anticipation of the AV clearing the intersection.

Then, on December 7, while crawling along in heavy traffic, a Bolt AV decided to merge left after identifying a gap in traffic between a minivan and a sedan. However, halfway through the move, the minivan slowed slightly, causing the AV to abort the lane change and return to the center lane, which resulted in a collision with a motorcycle that was lane splitting between the left and center lanes. The motorcyclist was deemed at fault for attempting to pass under unsafe conditions.

You may have noticed a common theme emerging: silly humans keep crashing into poor autonomous vehicles that are only out there trying to virtue-signal us into a newer, better, safer, traffic-free future where we’ll all be free to mainline media and conduct commerce during our commutes, generating a trail of highly collectable digital data 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, no matter where you go. But I digress…

According to an analysis of autonomous vehicle accident reports published by a group of researchers from the University of San Jose, an autonomous car is two times more likely to get rear-ended than a car operated by a human being. It’s a side effect of the autonomous driving model, which is: don’t move unless it’s painfully safe, stop immediately if you’re worried, and definitely don’t hurt anyone.

The study analyzed autonomous accident data reported between September 2014 and March 2017; the results will either reinforce your conviction that autonomous cars are stupid, or fuel your evangelical belief that people are incapable of operating motor vehicles.

It was discovered that humans and algorithms are equally bad at not getting hit from behind, even so, 62 percent of autonomous car accidents are rear-end fender benders, which is double the probability a human driver has of being rear-ended. Ostensibly, this is a side effect of autonomous behavior, where abrupt deceleration in the face of seemingly unpredictable behavior is the norm.

In 22 out of the 26 reported accidents, the software was found to be not at fault, however, out of all the accidents, the AV was capable of detecting and avoiding an imminent accident only three times. It’s rather difficult to avoid a crash caused by your own abrupt deceleration, but that’s not what the headlines say; they say impending doom will befall us if we don’t get humans out from behind the wheel.

94 percent of all automobile accidents are caused by human drivers. It’s not a statistic that should really shock you, as humans are the only entity currently capable of operating motor vehicles – who else could be at fault?

But the study’s findings become more interesting when looking at accident frequencies per miles driven. The mean mileage for cars driven by humans before encountering an accident is 500,000 miles, compare that with 42,017 miles for self-driving cars. Clearly, not all of us are as bad at this driving stuff as some would lead you to believe.

It’s already taken as absolute fact that self-driving cars will save lives, but the truth is we simply don’t have the data yet; the study claims a fleet of 100 vehicles would need to be driven accident-free 24/7, for 12.5 years, in order to accurately estimate acceptable fatality rates.

The problem is, the algorithms aren’t exactly getting better the more miles they drive. The researchers also concluded that the number of accidents observed had a significantly high correlation with the number of autonomous miles traveled, with no plateau in sight. Which leaves GM’s plan to launch fleets of fully autonomous robo-taxis in dense urban environments by 2019 seeming borderline disingenuous, and Mary Barra’s vision for a crash-free future sounding like a cash grab.

But it’s not about saving lives, it’s about increasing consumption under the guise of convenience, so please stop asking us those of us who value the greatest asset to our personal mobility to simply give it up just so that you can shop for shoes and share dank memes on your morning commute.

[Images: General Motors, Uber Technologies, Volvo Cars]

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5 of 63 comments
  • DownUnder2014 DownUnder2014 on Dec 26, 2017

    Interesting. I am still not really sold on AVs but I guess things may change over time...

    • Slavuta Slavuta on Dec 26, 2017

      Nothing to be sold about. Once AV kills children in school bus, it will be banned.

  • Zackman Zackman on Dec 26, 2017

    Let's not forget selfishness of drivers. Everyone seems to be in an awful hurry for almost everything nowadays, whether they have anywhere they need to go immediately, or just because they think they have to. People see a road ahead, and if another vehicle is going 1 mph slower than they want, they will do almost anything to pass. Semis, buses, box trucks and other delivery/commercial vehicles especially get on one's nerves, and an auto-driving vehicle would really seem to put someone over the top. Glad I'm retired and am in no hurry to go anywhere, especially now, due to recent eye surgery on my remaining good eye, I haven't driven in over 6 weeks, and I'll be out for at least another 6! I sure won't be getting in somebody's way any time soon...

    • See 1 previous
    • Zane Wylder Zane Wylder on Dec 26, 2017

      @brandloyalty I don't blame him and screw the communial needs of the many, we're not socialists despite them all living in the big cities on both coasts You wanna communist collective, move out of the county and somewhere like Europe or Cuba

  • Jim Bonham Thanks.
  • Luke42 I just bought a 3-row Tesla Model Y.If Toyota made a similar vehicle, I would have bought that instead. I'm former Prius owner, and would have bought a Prius-like EV if it were available.Toyota hasn't tried to compete with the Model Y. GM made the Bolt EUV, and Ford made the Mach-E. Tesla beat them all fair and square, but Toyota didn't even try.[Shrug]
  • RHD Toyota is trying to hedge their bets, and have something for everyone. They also may be farther behind in developing electric vehicles than they care to admit. Japanese corporations sometimes come up with cutting-edge products, such as the Sony Walkman. Large corporations (and not just Japanese corporations) tend to be like GM, though - too many voices just don't get heard, to the long-term detriment of the entity.
  • Randy in rocklin The Japanese can be so smart and yet so dumb. I'm America-Japanese and they really can be dumb sometimes like their masking paranoia.
  • Bunkie The Flying Flea has a fascinating story and served, inadvertently, to broaden the understanding of aircraft design. The crash described in the article is only part of the tale.