Are self-driving vehicles so safe they’re dangerous?

1 min read

Google is very proud of the fact that its self-driving cars have covered more than 1million miles on public roads in the US, but the company may end up red-faced after one of its vehicles was pulled-over by police for driving too slowly.

According to a report from the Mountain View Police Department in California, the car was travelling at 24mph in a 35mph zone and causing a tailback. The event also gives credence to recent claims from the California Department of Motor Vehicles that Google’s automated cars are ‘over-cautious’.

Google addressed the incident in a humorous post, explaining that the car’s speed is capped at 25mph for safety reasons. “We want them to feel friendly and approachable, rather than zooming scarily through neighbourhood streets.

“After 1.2 million miles of autonomous driving (that’s the human equivalent of 90 years of driving experience), we’re proud to say we’ve never been ticketed!”

The self-driving cars have been involved in a number of incidents in the last year, all of which were blamed on distracted drivers running into the back of them at pedestrian crossings and junctions.

The head of Google’s self-driving vehicle project, Chris Urmson has said that his cars are programmed to recognise an abnormal situation and to wait for it to end before continuing.

What would happen if a self-driving car were to encounter a roundabout; the rarest of junctions in the US, but something we’re all-too-familiar-with in the UK. Would it decide circling continuously was the safest course of action? Perhaps it would drive straight over a painted roundabout. Or maybe it would just give up and sit there waiting for the human to take over as the ‘abnormal situation’ wasn’t going away. How many lines of code would be needed to traverse The Magic Roundabout in Swindon?

Statistics suggest that 90% of car accidents are caused by human error and experts acknowledge that self-driving cars will reduce numbers of road traffic accidents. But, until the self-driving vehicle has been adopted en masse, are these vehicles too safe for their own good?

Driving slowly isn’t always the same as driving safely. We’ve all been behind someone who potters along, oblivious to other traffic. These people cause accidents, even though they wouldn’t recognise it. Google’s car also needs to be aware of other traffic, as well as potential dangers.