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Tuesday, 15 May 2018 16:45

Don't Blame Self-Driving Cars for Accidents Caused by Humans

Written by Eric Boehm, Reason.com

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A car accident in the Phoenix, AZ, suburbs that wouldn't otherwise have even made the local news reports has become a national story because of the involvement of an autonomous, or self-driving, car.

Involvement is the key word, because the self-driving car was an innocent bystander in a crash that was entirely the fault of two human-operated cars. But you wouldn't know that from some of the headlines spattered across social media, often accompanied by pictures of the dented Chrysler Pacifica sporting the blue-and-green Waymo logo.


As for what actually happened, here's how the Chandler police described the May 4 afternoon accident in their official report:


“This afternoon around noon a vehicle (Honda sedan) traveling eastbound on Chandler Blvd. had to swerve to avoid striking a vehicle traveling northbound on Los Feliz Dr. As the Honda swerved, the vehicle continued eastbound into the westbound lanes of Chandler Blvd. & struck the Waymo vehicle, which was traveling at a slow speed and in autonomous mode.”


And if you're skeptical of police officers' ability to tell the honest truth, dashcam video from the minivan confirms their account.


As both the police report and the dashcam video show, the accident was caused by the darker car attempting to enter Chandler Blvd., causing the lighter colored car to swerve out of the way at the last second. It's not clear from the video which vehicle had the green light.


One thing that is clear about this is that the self-driving car simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If the Waymo minivan had been parked on the side of the road when the crash occurred, it would have played the exact same role in what happened.


Local news playing a car accident for clicks and "likes" is to be expected, I suppose, but that sort of coverage has real consequences. First, there is the strong implication---if not an explicit message---that these self-driving cars are some sort of danger to public safety. Readers are quick to draw that conclusion, at least based on the responses to tweets that were released after the incident.


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