Valentine’s Day was a bummer in Mountain View, Calif. For the first time, one of Google’s self-driving cars, a modified Lexus SUV, caused a crash. Detecting a pile of sandbags surrounding a storm drain in its path, the car moved into the center lane to avoid the hazard. Three seconds later it collided with the side of a bus. According to the accident report, the Lexus’s test driver saw the bus but assumed the bus driver would slow down to allow the SUV to continue.
It was not the project’s first crash, but it was the first caused in part by nonhuman error (most incidents involve the driverless cars getting rear-ended by human drivers not paying attention at traffic lights). The episode shines a light on an ever looming gray area in our robotic future: Who is responsible—and pays for damages—when an autonomous vehicle crashes?