Fast and furious? Not hardly.
The Associated Press has published video from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority showing the low-speed encounter last month between one of the agency’s buses and a self-driving Google SUV.
The Valentine’s Day episode in Mountain View is said to be the first time one of the self-driving vehicles caused a crash.
By a less-than-eerie coincidence, I saw one of these Google SUVs — perhaps the ill-fated vehicle itself — the night before the crash. It negotiated a right turn off of Castro Street onto Villa, just outside Red Rock Coffee. The vehicle showed an otherworldly calm amid the busy Friday night traffic. It did not betray any irritation at the unending stream of pedestrians crossing the street and delaying its turn.
Back to the collision video: If you’re expecting Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, pumping adrenaline and such — no, not this time. Bus passengers appear to barely notice the impact. The bus driver has a “what the heck?” moment after the impact, but shows no alarm.
The collision was not without its human cost, though — the bus was forced to stop at the accident scene, and passengers were forced to exit the vehicle. No one was injured.
Google’s Lexus and the VTA bus, however, did get scuffed up in the encounter. The SUV had to be towed, while the bus suffered mostly cosmetic damage. The AP says an independent claims adjuster is still assessing liability for the collision.
The Associated Press Q&A on the collision and Google’s self-driving car program is below.
IS THIS THE FIRST CRASH FOR A GOOGLE CAR?
No. The Feb. 14 crash is the first in which Google has acknowledged its car made a mistake that led to a collision.
Google has reported that between September 2014 and November, its prototypes drove themselves about 400,000 miles on city streets near its Silicon Valley headquarters without causing a collision.
Its fleet has likely driven an additional 100,000 miles since then, though the company won’t be specific. According to Google’s accounting, its cars have been hit nearly a dozen times on the streets in or around its Mountain View headquarters since road testing began in spring 2014.
HOW DID THE CRASH HAPPEN?
The Lexus intended to turn right off a major boulevard but stopped after detecting sandbags around a storm drain near the intersection, according to an accident report Google filed with the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
Photos show two small black sandbags on either side of a drain at the curb. The right lane was wide enough to let some cars turn and others go straight, but to avoid driving over the sandbags, the Lexus needed to slide to its left within the lane. The bus and several other cars that drove straight were to the left of the Lexus, in the same lane.
When the light turned green, several cars ahead of the bus passed the SUV. Google has said that both the car’s software and the person in the driver’s seat thought the bus would let the Lexus into the flow of traffic. The Google employee did not try to intervene before the crash.
“This is a classic example of the negotiation that’s a normal part of driving — we’re all trying to predict each other’s movements. In this case, we clearly bear some responsibility, because if our car hadn’t moved there wouldn’t have been a collision,” Google wrote of the incident.
WHAT DOES THE VIDEO SHOW?
The footage shows angles from eight onboard cameras.
In one clip, passengers gazing out on a sunny afternoon are jolted to attention by a scraping, crunching sound and the impact, which causes several hand straps to sway.
In another clip, the Lexus RX450 can be seen bouncing off the side of the bus. Photos show a long scratch mark traversing the side of the bus. The radar unit ended up wedged in the crack where two side passenger doors of the bus join, cracking a glass panel.
A camera trained on the driver shows him open his mouth in surprise, then gesture as if to say, “Why did you just hit my bus?”
Google has said that safety is its guiding principle in developing the cars, and that once mature, the technology promises to reduce collisions and deaths dramatically.
The software that controls the cars is programmed to follow all traffic laws and to drive conservatively, the company said.
The law-abiding algorithms that rule the SUV’s onboard computer make its decision to try and slip in front of the bus surprising.
Footage from a forward-facing camera on the bus shows there was not much more than a full car length between the bus and the GMC Yukon in front of it.
Google said it has tweaked its software to “more deeply understand that buses and other large vehicles are less likely to yield to us than other types of vehicles.”