Anatomy of the first robocar accidents

I have prepared a large new Robocar article. This one covers just what will happen when the first robocars are involved in accidents out on public streets, possibly injuring people. While everybody is working to minimize this, perfection is neither possible nor the right goal, so it will eventually happen. As such, when I see public discussion of robocars and press articles, people are always very curious about accidents, liability, insurance and to what extent these issues are blockers on the technology.

So please consider:

Anatomy of a Robocar Accident

This article comes in part from having attended the “We Robot” conference in April at Stanford University. While it was generally about robots and the law, robocars were probably the most popular topic. Several of the papers in the proceedings are well worth it for those interested in the law of robotics. (The real law, not the silly Asimov laws.)

In a curious coincidence, last week saw an unusual robocar accident in Brazil that caused minor injuries — on live TV no less. On a Brazilian TV show, professor Alberto Ferreira do Souza from the Federal University of Espirito Santo has just shown TV Presenter Ana Maria Braga their robocar, which features the smaller 32-line Velodyne LIDAR on the roof and various other sensors. After the successful demo, he reaches into the car to turn off the system and restore the car to manual. Unfortunately, the car has stopped on an incline, and in doing so from outside the car, this releases the hold on the brakes that their drive-by-wire system had and the car starts rolling down the hill, and the open door whacks Braga hard, though fortunately with only minor injuries. Here is a video and Here’s the story in Portuguese with a different video clip. I have no idea why a puppet parrot is commenting on the accident.

As you can surmise, the self-driving software was not directly at fault here, but rather bad human judgement in turning it off. Curiously, this is not the first time we’ve seen serious problems with humans not correctly handling turning systems on and off. I routinely show a video of my friend Anthonly Levandowski, who built a motorcycle for the DARPA grand challenge and forgot to turn on an important system just before the race, causing his bike to tip over right out of the starting gate. Volvo also had the “press demo from hell” when their crash-prevention system did not operate. It was reported that a battery had discharged by mistake, and that in recharging it they had disabled the collision system.

There have been several small robocar accidents. Just about every team in the DARPA Grand Challenges had a car go awry during early development and testing, and a few even had accidents during the challenge, with one small car to car fender bender and a fairly hard hit on concrete barriers. Google has also reported their car has been rear-ended while stopped at a light during testing — a situation where blame is always placed on the rear car.