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Google self-driving car gets in accident — while human is driving

Google says a person was operating the self-driving car in manual mode at the time of the accident.

August 06, 2011|By David Sarno, Los Angeles Times

Google Inc.'s quest to popularize cars that drive themselves appeared to hit a roadblock when one of the automated vehicles got into an accident.

But, the company said Friday, don't blame the car. A human was driving it.

Auto blog Jalopnik posted a photo showing a self-driving Google car pulled to the side of the road after apparently banging into a Toyota Prius near Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. In the photo, the Google car — also a Prius but with a telltale rack of roof electronics — is shown parked behind the other vehicle as a policeman and other drivers look on.

Self-driving cars must legally have a human at the wheel, ready to assume control if anything goes wrong. Google says that in this case, the human driver was operating the car in manual mode at the time of the accident.

"Safety is our top priority. One of our goals is to prevent fender-benders like this one, which occurred while a person was manually driving the car," said a Google spokesperson, adding that the cars have traveled more than 160,000 miles autonomously "without incident."

In June, Nevada became the first state to legalize self-driving cars, a victory for Google's driverless ambitions.

Google has been working on a project to put human drivers in the back seat, so to speak, by building cars that use radar, video cameras and lasers to navigate roads and stay safe in traffic. The company has said that eventually computer-controlled cars should drive more safely than humans — who, after all, get sleepy and distracted and can see only what's in front of them, while computerized cars can see in every direction at once.

That sort of mega-awareness would also help reduce traffic, Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford University robotics professor who is a project leader on Google's effort, said at a technology conference this spring.

"Do you realize that we could change the capacity of highways by a factor of two or three if we didn't rely on human precision on staying in the lane but on robotic precision, and thereby drive a little bit closer together on a little bit narrower lanes and do away with all traffic jams on highways?" he said.

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