Time for some spin control. The Associated Press revealed earlier this week that Google’s self-driving cars haven’t exactly had a flawless road record. In fact, they’ve been in 11 low-grade fender benders. Oops. (Mistakes were made.)

It's interesting that presidential wannabe Jeb Bush used that exact formulation to “walk back” his statement that he would have invaded Iraq. "Clearly there were mistakes," he said, but nobody was really responsible. Google didn’t say that, exactly, but it sought to put its accidents into context.

According to Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving car project:

If you spend enough time on the road, accidents will happen whether you’re in a car or a self-driving car…Over the six years since we started the project, we’ve been involved in 11 minor accidents (light damage, no injuries) during those 1.7 million miles of autonomous and manual driving with our safety drivers behind the wheel, and not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident (emphasis in the original).
Urmson elaborates that rear-end accidents are the most common types of accidents in the U.S., and that its cars have been hit that way seven times (mainly at traffic lights). “We’ve also been side-swiped a couple of times and hit by a car rolling through a stop sign.” Autonomous cars don’t make “rolling stops,” but lots of us humans do.

Google cars have driven a million miles in self-driving mode, so 11 minor accidents doesn't sound so bad.

Google cars have driven a million miles in self-driving mode, so 11 minor accidents doesn't sound so bad. (Photo: Don DeBold/flickr)

To point the finger in the right direction, Urmson says that, at any given moment during the day, 660,000 people are “checking their devices instead of watching the road.” And not paying attention (again, not a fault of self-driving cars, which have 360-degree sensors and 100 percent concentration) causes a lot of accidents.

With an almost grassy knoll level of detail, Urmson dissects some bad driver behavior — complete with graphics showing its cars getting cut off and victimized. “Drivers do very silly things when they realize they’re about to miss their turn,” he writes.

The upshot of all this, for me, is that people need to realize that self-driving cars will only be accident-free when every car on the road drives itself, with total awareness of its surroundings. At that point, vehicle-to-vehicle communications (V2V) will ensure that cars “see” each other. That technology is starting to move, but it’s still in its infancy.

The purple boxes show two cars

The purple boxes show two cars "coming toward us on the wrong side of the median." (Graphic: Google)

My first reaction to the “Google cars get in accidents” headlines was to see this as Google’s self-driving Watergate, but the reality is far more mundane. In fact, the technology isn’t foolproof. Bad weather shuts down autonomous vehicles with the current technology. Snow, for instance, often means that the car can’t define the edges of the lane.

So what does Google do, then? It puts human drivers back in control when conditions get hairy. The program has been run responsibly, which is why more and more states have licensed self-driving cars.

It would be helpful to have actual unbiased details of the accidents (instead of Google’s word for it), but California’s DMV (where most of the driving occurs) said it doesn’t release such information. It’s interesting to note that, last year around this time, Google said it had completed 700,000 miles accident free. Should that be “fault-free”? The company is now up to 1.7 million miles (with one million in self-driving mode), and the world now knows there are some scrapes and dents among the cars in its fleet. 

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.