Apple: First autonomous crash

Image courtesy of Google Maps 

Image courtesy of Google Maps 

An accident report filed with the Department of Motor Vehicles of California yesterday reveals that one of Apple's Lexus RX450h was involved in a car accident. 

The accident, which occurred during an autonomous driving test, took place at 2:58pm on August 24th, 2018. As the relevant documents reveal, Apple's vehicle was operating in autonomous mode and was travelling at a speed of less than 1mph, while waiting for a safe gap to merge onto Lawrence Expressway South. 

The incident raises questions about two aspects of autonomous driving: firstly, the readiness of autonomous vehicles to be let out into the open. Secondly, and perhaps, most importantly, the readiness of drivers to interact with vehicles that choose to drive defensively, yet lack the soft skills required to alert other road users of their often unexpected intentions. Recently, Amir Efrati of the Information argued that autonomous vehicles are much farther away than media will have you believe, citing the numerous problems faced by Waymo's AV (such as the one mentioned below)

Although no further information is provided on the accident in question, the speed at which the AV-capable RX450h was moving reveals it had to come to an almost complete halt before merging, a step that was likely not expected by the driver of the Nissan Leaf, who was driving at 15mph when they rear-ended the Lexus SUV.  Interestingly, the ability (or rather, inability) of autonomous vehicles to merge onto high-speed highways has come under intense scrutiny over the past weeks. A clip showing a Waymo vehicle awkwardly trying to merge onto a highway, failing, and eventually rerouting was posted on Twitter and has since been reposted on popular media, such as DailyMail's website.

Indeed, even though legal principles would dictate that most accidents involving autonomous vehicles have been caused by careless drivers (and not the AV software itself), in cases like this, it is not as easy to say that the actual fault lies with the driver of the Nissan Leaf. Apple's AV could have engaged the emergency braking function upon detecting a potential collision with a fast-approaching car on the highway, for example. Would an actual driver have acted the same way, or would they have skilfully adjusted their speed to avoid collision, and carefully steered their way into the highway lane? Given the absence of any further information, any conclusion drawn will be nothing but speculation. As Nick Statt of The Verge astutely points out though, the frequency at which AVs are rear-ended by manually-operated vehicles is suspicious. 

The intervening step between manual driving and full autonomy requires the coexistence of autonomous vehicles and drivers, at least to some extent. It becomes increasingly obvious that the way major automakers think about autonomous driving, is not necessarily working when aggressive drivers become part of the picture. While defensive driving, paired with advanced Vehicle-2-Vehicle technology (imagine the merging car telling other self-driving cars near it that it will be merging, and making them slow down), could allow effortless merging and overall safer driving in the future, it currently makes it harder for self-driving cars of today to fight their ground in the busy streets of the Bay Area


Photo Credit: Google Maps