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How to NOT Write Headlines About Self-Driving Cars

This article is a quick addendum to last week’s post about terrorism and self-driving cars (referred to here often as Google cars) where I wrote about the already-burgeoning fears of terrorists using self-driving cars as a weapon. But I should point out:

People are already afraid of self-driving cars.

Thanks Ultron, T-1000, HAL 9000 and whatever-the-robot’s-name-is in Ex Machina. Yes, people inherently distrust machines and computers. More importantly, they question their competence. Anecdotally, at our last family get together, I had a long discussion with someone who just couldn’t accept the idea that cars could drive better than humans.

The media isn’t helping. While I was writing up last week’s post, the AP released a “stunning” report about Google cars. They’re getting into accidents! Here’s a sampling of Google News (ironic, right?) headlines about the story:

USA TODAY: Google says its self-driving cars have had 11 crashes

San Jose Mercury News: Google reveals 11 self-driving car accidents in 6 years

MarketWatch: Google's self-driving cars are getting into accidents

Los Angeles Times: Google acknowledges 11 accidents with its self-driving cars

Business Insider: Google's self-driving cars have been getting in accidents in California

The Hill: Google: Self-driving cars had 11 'minor' accidents

Quartz: Google's driverless cars have been involved in four car accidents

Sounds bad, right? 11 accidents! That’s higher the national average!

For my grammar nerds, though, you’ll notice the oddly-shaped sentence structure, leaning on passive voice, “have been involved” being the best example. So how bad are Google cars? A quote from The Verge’s accurately titled article, “Google's self-driving cars have been in 11 accidents, but none were the car's fault”:

“First, the raw numbers: there have been 11 accidents in total, all minor, which Google asserts were never the fault of the car. Seven involved another vehicle rear-ending the Google car, two were sideswipes, and one involved another car traveling through a red light.”

Yes, Google cars “were involved” in 11 accidents--no injuries, all minor crashes--but in each case, humans were at fault. And these fender-bender accidents, it turns out, are the same type of accident most people don’t report to federal authorities. (They don’t want their insurance rates to go up.)

For anyone keeping track on the humans versus self-driving cars scoreboard: Google cars: 0, Humans: 11. These numbers come from Google, so we have to take their word for it. That said, regulators are going to come down hard on Google to prove their cars are safe, so I trust them. Google also plans to release monthly accident reports. And you better believe if Google hits someone, that someone would go to the media if Google didn’t report it.

Google, in response to the news stories and headlines, wrote up an article on their self-driving cars. Instead of disputing the accidents--they didn’t--they explained how terrible humans are at driving.

Discussing this issue--just to put it out there, we love self-driving cars--Michael C and I determined that this news story actually works in Google’s favor. Google is already tracking how bad humans are at driving. They’re not just going to figure out if their cars are safer than industry standard accidents; they’re going to prove that humans are actually worse. And the next wave of headlines, in early June when Google released its first monthly report, were more in the self-driving car/Google’s favor.

In other words, reporters and editors love “shocking” headlines, but our fears about self-driving cars are woefully misplaced.

(Unless you are a taxi cab, uber or truck driver.)