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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Google's Self-Driving Cars Don't Brake for Minorities

Posted By on Thu, Jul 23, 2015 at 1:04 PM

click to enlarge BECKY STERN/FLICKR
  • Becky Stern/Flickr

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA – As Google continues to test its self-driving cars on California streets, a new report by J.D. Power and Associates gives the cars high rankings in speed, responsiveness, and comfort, but deducts 10 points from their total score because the tech giant’s autonomous vehicles do not stop for minorities.

Google Vice-President of Human Factors David Roth said that while the company clearly needs to do better on diversity issues, he doesn’t see the problem.

“While it’s regrettable that our software still doesn’t recognize women pedestrians or bicyclists, we have our best tech teams on the case, and if it turns out that women are people, we’ll be the first to know,” he said. “In the meantime, we’re supporting initiatives to help girls in school learn to code.”

To the extent that there is a racial gap in Google cars’ tendency to not brake for minorities, Google lead engineer Scott Myer said “it’s because the software operates as a meritocracy.”

“Google’s algorithm computes the relative costs of braking in terms of energy used versus potential cost across a number of factors,” Myer explained. “Frankly, it would be impossible for a human to decide to not slow down for a Latina grandmother as fast as the software can decide that. People just aren’t as good at it.”

While there are no reported instances of Google cars injuring women or minorities, it's impossible to know for sure, according to the report’s lead author, Viola Graham, because the tech industry as a whole does not keep track of minorities injured.

“To be fair, it’s not just Google,” Graham said. “Uber doesn’t keep any data on the minorities its drivers run over, although it sometimes charges up to 25% extra when that happens. And Apple has actually gone so far as to say it will be phasing out at least one ethnic group by 2025. I’m not actually sure what that means. They just keep saying it’s a design challenge.”

In all, Graham said, Google cars are doing exceptionally well on metrics that most drivers care about. “They handle beautifully, have a good safety record, and they never drive into minority neighborhoods,” she said. “Actually I’m not sure they know those neighborhoods exist.”


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