Driverless vehicle accidents are one of the key concerns of those developing and using the technology. With The Road to Driverless Cars being the 2019 ITGS case study, it is important to know about the incidents that have happened so far so we can understand the potential problems development of driverless car technology might cause.
To date there have been four recorded driverless vehicle accidents involving fatalities, and numerous other minor accidents. Three of the fatal accidents involved driver fatalities while one involved a pedestrian. Three of the fatal incidents involved Tesla’s Autopilot system, which is not marketed as a driverless vehicle system but as a driving assistance system.
These incidents are listed here to help teachers and students understand the incidents that have occurred. Sources and further research will provide links to theories regarding the causes of the crashes and potential legal responsibility. Many of these cases raise important points for classroom discussion.
20 January 2016, Hebei, China
23-year-old Gao Yuning was killed when his Tesla, with Autopilot mode engaged, slammed into the back of a stationary road sweeping truck parked at the edge of the road. Footage from the vehicle shows that it took no action to avoid the truck or slow down before the impact. It was suggested that environmental conditions such as haze may have caused problems distinguishing the truck from the sky. (Source)
7 May June 2016, Florida
Joshua Brown was killed when his Tesla with its Autopilot mode engaged crashed into the side of a tractor-trailer. The car’s computer vision system reportedly had problems spotting truck trailers and took no action to avoid it. The combination of the white truck and the bright sky was said by some to be the cause of the problem. Brown was reportedly watching a movie on his laptop in the moments before the accident. According to the investigation, the Tesla Autopilot mode gave multiple warnings to Brown about taking his hands off the steering wheel.
In a blog post made after the accident, Tesla expressed their condolences but described the Autopilot software as a ‘beta’ product. This is certainly a surprising description given its use cases. (Source)
18 March 2018, Arizona
This is perhaps the most widely reported accident involving self driving cars. On the night of 18 March pedestrian Elaine Herzberg was hit and killed by an Uber driverless vehicle. In footage of the accident Herzberg can be seen appearing from a shadowy area moments before the accident. The Uber car took no action to avoid her. The human driver, responsible for monitoring the car’s driving, was clearly distracted and also failed to see Herzberg. Two days later Uber suspended all self driving vehicle trials. In the following weeks, NuTonomy and Toyota also suspended their own autonomous vehicle programmes. (Source)
23 March 2018, California
A man in San Mateo, California was killed when his Tesla car hit the central divider on the highway. His family claim the vehicle’s Autopilot was engaged at the time of the accident, and that it had been previously returned to the manufacturer over complaints about errors in its driving patterns. If the Autopilot was indeed engaged, this would be the third fatality involving the Tesla Autopilot system. (Source)
There have been numerous minor accidents involving self driving vehicles, including:
18 October 2016: A Nutonomy self driving vehicle in Singapore collided at low speed with a truck, resulting in minor damage but no injuries. (Source)
26 March 2017: A Google driverless car was famously rear-ended while stopped at a red light. Some sources have suggested that driverless vehicles’ safe nature – driving within the speed limit and with strict adherence to the law – can precipitate accidents because such consistent behaviour is unexpected by human drivers. (Source)
7 December 2017: A self driving vehicle manufactured by General Motors was involved in a collision with a motorcyclist. The motorcyclist received injuries. (Source)
23 January 2018: A Tesla vehicle in Autopilot mode crash into the back of a fire engine parked at the side of the road in California. There were no injuries. The situation sounds very similar to the fatal driverless car accidents involving Gao Yuning and Joshua Brown (above). (Source)
24 March 2018: A General Motors vehicle was involved in an accident while in autonomous mode. The vehicle slowed to avoid an accident with a cyclist who was cycling the wrong way down the street. A (human-driven) car behind failed to react in time and rear-ended the driverless car. (Source)
This list is only a partial list of driverless vehicle accidents. The examples above can be further researched and used as class discussion points. California is the only US state that requires reports to be submitted about driverless vehicle accidents. Their DMV website has a list of accidents reported, which makes interesting reading – particularly in relation to the 2019 ITGS case study. There were 67 recorded accidents as of 25 May 2018.