Google Self-Driving Cars Spotlight Problem of Distracted Drivers

In the future, your car may be driving you.

ByABC News
July 17, 2015, 10:36 AM

— -- The safest driver in the future might not be human -- it could very well be your car.

Google revealed this week one of its self-driving vehicles was involved in its first-ever injury accident when another vehicle rear-ended it at 17 miles per hour.

Of the 14 accidents Google has reported with its self-driving fleet, none have been caused by the autonomous vehicles, according to the company, which cited human error as the reason for the fender benders.

Regulatory hurdles and more testing currently stand in the way between making autonomous vehicles a reality on roads across the United States. However, what Google has learned from the approximate 2 million miles the company has logged with its driverless technology shows it could lead to a safer future.

"The clear theme is human error and inattention," Chris Urmson, lead of Google's driverless car project, said in a blog post on Thursday. "We'll take all this as a signal that we’re starting to compare favorably with human drivers."

While a futuristic utopia of only self-driving vehicles allowed on the road and no traffic accidents may not ever be fully realized, Google's testing has taught the company a lot about human behavior while driving and what can be improved.

Distracted drivers are perhaps the biggest factor in the accidents, according to Urmson.

"Our self-driving cars are being hit surprisingly often by other drivers who are distracted and not paying attention to the road," he said. "That's a big motivator for us."

The most recent collision happened during rush hour on July 1 when one of Google's self-driving Lexus vehicles encountered backed-up traffic. Instead of going through a green light and being stuck in the intersection, the car was smart enough to brake, along with three other vehicles traveling in its lane.

The self-driving Lexus was then rear-ended at 17 miles per hour by a driver who Urmson said hadn't even stepped on the brakes.

The driver of that car reported minor neck and back pain, according to an accident report obtained by the Associated Press from the California Department of Motor Vehicles.The autonomous Lexus sustained damage to its rear bumper while the car that slammed into it lost its front bumper, according to the report.

With 360-degrees of awareness, the self-driving cars are gaining new insights into dangerous driving behaviors, including drifting lanes and red light running -- both of which can contribute to accidents. Google's self-driving cars are driven a total of 10,000 miles per week, mostly on city streets.

While software and sensors can help the cars take action faster than a human driver, Urmson said in May that "sometimes we won’t be able to overcome the realities of speed and distance; sometimes we’ll get hit just waiting for a light to change."