AH Primetime: Are Google's Autonomous Cars Too Perfect For Their Own Good?

Google Self Driving Car

Google’s driverless cars have been in the news of late, but mostly because of stuff that’s got nothing to do with their display of on-road prowess. With the California DMV releasing its official set of regulations for the vehicles earlier in the week, Google expressed its displeasure in no uncertain terms at what the project lead, Mr. Chris Urmson, described as “same old status quo” because of the organization’s insistence on the presence of a licensed driver at the wheel at all times, just in case things were to go haywire with the automated machinery. While Google may have officially lambasted the California DMV for what the company perceives to be a hindrance towards achieving its goal of fully-automated vehicular travel in the future, latest reports seem to indicate that the California DMV might have been onto something.

Google’s autonomous vehicles have gotten into trouble a number of times for being too cautious, overly defensive, and quite simply, obeying the law a bit too much. In November, one of the test cars were pulled over for allegedly driving too slow. On several other occasions, the cars have gotten into accidents – albeit mostly fender benders without any real injury – precisely because of their defensive driving, and not in spite of. It’s believed that infractions of traffic laws by human drivers is what makes the perfectly well-behaved, law-abiding autonomous vehicles susceptible to traffic mishaps. Things have escalated to such a level that researchers and programmers at Google and Carnegie Mellon University have apparently started debating as to whether the vehicles are way too law-abiding for their own good!

According to Mr. Raj Rajkumar, co-director of the General Motors-Carnegie Mellon Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab in Pittsburgh, “It’s a constant debate inside our group. And we have basically decided to stick to the speed limit. But when you go out and drive the speed limit on the highway, pretty much everybody on the road is just zipping past you. And I would be one of those people”. Mr. Rajkumar narrates an incident from last year, when he offered test-rides to a number of Congressman in his lab’s self-driving Cadillac SRX SUV. With the vehicle getting into heavy rush-hour traffic on I-395, the human driver had to take control because there was no telling how the vehicle would react, seeing as it didn’t know how human drivers behave while swinging across multiple lanes of traffic.

Google says it is trying to develop software that will make its autonomous cars drive more aggressively, in order to mimic human behavior more closely. This, according to the Principal Engineer and Software Lead for Google’s Self-Driving Cars, Mr. Dmitri Dolgov, who however, rejected the notion that the over-carefulness of the cars are actually what’s causing the accidents. Speaking to Bloomberg, he said that the company’s self-driving cars err on the conservative side. “They’re a little bit like a cautious student driver or a grandma”, is how he put it.