6 self-driving car crashes that tapped the brakes on the autonomous revolution

Our list of self-driving accidents, including the 'avoidable' Arizona Uber crash

According to statistical data, you’re almost certainly safer in a car driven by a computer than one driven by a human. Self-driving vehicles have the opportunity to bring multiple benefits — from safer driving experiences to less congestion in our cities.

With that said, autonomous cars won’t mean the end of road traffic accidents. Crashes can occur as the result of both human error and technical fault. While this list isn’t supposed to be comprehensive, these are the most significant crashes in self-driving (and semi-self-driving) car history. Hopefully, the right lessons can be learned from them.

Google Lexus SUV, July 2015

most significant self driving car crashes google lexus rx 450h

Google revealed that one of its self-driving cars had been involved in the first crash to injure a human. The incident involved one of Google’s self-driving Lexus SUV vehicles being rear-ended in Mountain View, CA, during testing. Three Google employees who were on board at the time suffered minor whiplash. The driver of the other vehicle reported neck and back pain.

This wasn’t the first accident involving one of Google’s self-driving cars, but it was the first one which could be classified as serious (or, in this case, semi-serious.) The common factor in all the crashes up to this point was human error on the part of other drivers. Mountain View police responded to the incident, but did not file an accident report.

Tesla Model S, January 2016

Tesla Model S P85D

The world’s first apparent death in a semi-autonomous car took place in early 2016. Less widely covered than subsequent instances, it occurred in China, just three months after Tesla’s autopilot feature was introduced to the Chinese market.

This semi-autonomous feature is designed to offer an advanced driver assistance system (ADAS), although it still requires drivers to be attentive. The incident involved a Tesla Model S sedan — supposedly in autopilot mode — which crashed into the back of a cleaning vehicle while driving in clear weather, resulting in the death of its 23-year-old driver Gao Yaning. No attempt at braking was made.

“The autopilot program’s slow response failed to accurately gauge the road conditions ahead and provide instructions,” claimed a lawsuit filed against Tesla. Tesla said that it was unable to confirm whether autopilot was engaged at the time, since the damage caused by the collision left the car “physically incapable of transmitting log data to our servers.”

A police investigation found that Yaning had failed “to drive safely in accordance with [autopilot] operation rules” (read: paying full attention to the road), while also blaming the street sweeping vehicle’s “incomplete safety facilities.”

Google Lexus SUV, February 2016

Google self-driving Lexus RX 450h in Kirkland, Washington

One of Google’s self-driving Lexus SUV cars was involved in a non-fatal crash with a bus on Silicon Valley’s El Camino Real road. This was the 18th accident involving a Google autonomous vehicle, but is significant because it was the first time that the Google vehicle is apparently at fault.

The incident occurred while Google’s car is merging back into traffic after stopping to avoid an obstacle. It stuck the side of the bus while doing so. The SUV suffered superficial damage to one wheel, its side-mounted sensors and bodywork.

“We clearly bear some responsibility, because if our car hadn’t moved there wouldn’t have been a collision,” Google said in a statement. “From now on, our cars will more deeply understand that buses (and other large vehicles) are less likely to yield to us than other types of vehicles, and we hope to handle situations like this more gracefully in the future.”

Tesla Model S, May 2016

tesla model s autopilot expected update crash death

The first U.S. death involving a semi-autonomous car occurred when 40-year-old Ohio resident Joshua Brown’s Model S Tesla was in autopilot mode on the highway.

Unfortunately, the car’s sensors failed to recognize a white 18-wheel truck and trailer crossing the highway against the bright sky background. As a result, the Model S drove full speed under the trailer, which impacted the car’s windshield.

“Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert,” Tesla said in a statement, while also noting that it was “beyond saddened” by Brown’s death.

Uber self-driving Volvo, March 2018

uber autonomous crash volvo

An autonomous car killed 49-year-old Arizona resident Elaine Herzberg in what is believed to be the first fatal U.S. crash involving a pedestrian and self-driving vehicle. The incident took place at night when Herzberg was crossing the road with her bicycle outside of a sanctioned crosswalk, and has since been deemed “entirely avoidable.”

The Uber test driver was not looking at the road in the moments leading up to the collision, and according to a recently released police report, was watching Hulu until 0.5 seconds before the crash. “Our hearts go out to the victim’s family,” the company said in a statement. “We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident.” Uber temporarily suspended autonomous road testing in the aftermath of the accident.

Tesla Model X, March 2018

Tesla Model X

Less than a week after the Uber self-driving car crash, another semi-autonomous vehicle fatality took place — once again involving a Tesla vehicle. On this occasion, a Tesla Model X on autopilot crashed in Mountain View, killing the 38-year-old driver, Apple software engineer Wei Huang.

According to Tesla, Huang received “several visual and one audible hands-on warning earlier in the drive, and the driver’s hands were not detected on the wheel for six seconds prior to the collision.” However, no intervention was taken and the car collided with the concrete divider in the road.

Updated on June 22 to add news that the Uber crash was deemed entirely avoidable, and that the driver was watching Hulu.  


New Toyota tech will automatically shut off engines, apply parking brakes

Toyota is launching two new safety features for the 2020 model year. One will automatically shut off a car's engine when stationary, and the other will automatically shift into park and apply the parking brake to prevent rollaways.

Florida allows autonomous cars to drive on its roads without human supervision

Florida governor Ron DeSantis passed a law that establishes a legal framework for self-driving cars to operate within the state. It allows car and tech companies to test self-driving cars without a human operator behind the wheel.

Uber’s next self-driving car, a hat-wearing Volvo, will start testing in 2020

Volvo and Uber have unveiled their latest autonomous prototype. It's based on the second-generation XC90, and it's fitted with the self-driving technology Uber developed in-house.

Fiat Chrysler is the latest to partner with autonomous-tech specialist Aurora

Fiat Chrysler and Silicon Valley startup Aurora are joining forces to develop self-driving technology for commercial services, marking the latest in a string of similar collaborations between automakers and tech specialists.
Emerging Tech

This drone with hands looks like a nightmare straight out of Black Mirror

This unlikely drone-with-hands creation is the work of Federico Ciccarese, the brains behind YouBionic, a bionic hand project that has evolved far beyond its original brief. Check it out.
Emerging Tech

This crazy-looking robot uses microspines on its legs to climb up walls

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have built a bioinspired robot, which uses microspines on its feet to grip onto rough surfaces. This allows it to climb up very steep gradients. Check it out.
Emerging Tech

Got $400 million to burn? The world’s largest airplane is up for sale

Stratolaunch, the world's largest airplane, is up for sale. All it'll cost you is $400 million dollars. The brainchild of late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the plane was supposed to make space travel more accessible and affordable.
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: Florida’s autonomous vehicle law, E3 updates, and more

On this episode of DT Live, we take a look at the biggest trending stories in tech, including Florida allowing fully autonomous vehicles on the road, Atari’s new gaming system, E3 updates, high-speed rail, and more.
Emerging Tech

Ex astris, scientia: Star Trek logo spotted on the surface of Mars

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been boldly going to Mars and capturing images since 2005, and now it has spotted something where no man has gone before: a structure on the planet's surface which will look familiar to Trekkies.
Emerging Tech

Adobe develops tool to identify Photoshopped images of faces

With deepfake videos making headlines, and campaigns against the Photoshopping of models, people are more aware than ever of the digital manipulation of images. Now Adobe wants to give tools to users to let them spot faked images.
Emerging Tech

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will pave the way for manned missions to Mars

Survival on Mars is a massive challenge for humanity. To cope with the highly variable temperatures, lack of oxygen and water, and high levels of radiation, the Mars 2020 rover will carry instruments to pave the way for human exploration.
Emerging Tech

Facebook builds virtual homes to train A.I. agents in realistic environments

Researchers at Facebook have created Habitat, which is a platform that enables rapid training for A.I. agents. They will receive thousands of hours of training in just a few minutes in the virtual homes.
Emerging Tech

Impossible Foods struggles to keep up with Impossible Burger demand

Red Robin and White Castle have reported Impossible Burger shortages, as it appears that Impossible Foods is struggling to keep up with demand. The company will be selling its meat-like patties in retail outlets within the year.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Plant-based shoes and a ukulele learning aid

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!