U.S. Markets closed

A Google self-driving car reportedly caused a crash in 2011 after a former engineer changed its code to drive where it wasn't supposed to (GOOG, GOOGL)

Sean Wolfe
Anthony Levandowski
  • Before Anthony Levandowski was accused of stealing trade secrets from Google sister company Waymo, he worked on Google's in-house self-driving car unit, nicknamed Project Chauffeur.
  • Former Google executives claimed that Levandowski ignored safety concerns, including in one instance where he allegedly took a self-driving car on an off-limits route. The executives said that self-driving car then boxed out another car that was trying to merge — causing the other driver to crash. 
  • The executives also claimed that more than a dozen accidents happened during the beginning of Project Chauffeur, according to the New Yorker. 

Anthony Levandowski, the engineer at the center of this year's corporate espionage trial between Waymo and Uber, has a history of bending the rules when it comes to self-driving cars, the New Yorker reports

While working at Google's Project Chauffeur, the self-driving car program that would later evolve into Waymo, Levandowski allegedly modified the car's software so it could be taken on routes that were previously off-limits. After another employee became angry with Levandowski for altering the code, the two began to argue — which resulted in Levandowski taking the employee on a test run to prove his point, an executive told the New Yorker. 

Levandowski caused an accident during that test run, a former Google executive told the New Yorker. Google's self-driving Toyota Prius allegedly blocked another car from merging onto the highway, which caused the other driver to swerve into the highway median. Levandowski allegedly then took control of the Prius and swerved to avoid contact with the vehicle, but the violent motion seriously injured the other employee's spine. 

Even though Levandowski and Google's self-driving car appeared to have caused the accident, the pair allegedly drove off without checking to see if the other driver was okay, and the incident wasn't reported. Even after Google's self-driving Prius was involved with an accident, Levandowski defended his safety standards, and sent his coworkers an email with the subject line "Prius vs Camry" that contained a video of the accident. 

In a statement to the New Yorker, Google said the accident was “an unfortunate single-car accident in which another car failed to yield to traffic," and said it was not responsible since the Prius didn't directly cause the other car to crash. 

Indeed, former Google executives told the New Yorker that Levandowski was known for sometimes ignoring safety standards, and that Project Chauffeur cars were involved in more than a dozen accidents in its early years — three of which were allegedly serious. Waymo said it is not aware of which three 'serious' accidents the New Yorker is referencing, and said the company has reported all incidents since the 2014 California law was enacted. Waymo said the majority of reported incidents are minor collisions or bumps.  

Before California enacted a new law in 2014, it wasn't required for Google to disclose any accidents caused by its self-driving cars, so long as the vehicle itself hadn't physically crashed in any way. The report indicates that this is how Google was able to avoid reporting the incidents.

A Waymo spokesperson offered the following statement: "The Google self-driving car project was founded with a mission to improve road safety, and that's the standard we hold ourselves to in everything we do. Over the past near-decade, we've carefully developed a comprehensive testing program that includes more than 10 million miles on public roads."

For his part, Levandowski seems to acknowledge that safety was not his top priority. 

“If it is your job to advance technology, safety cannot be your No. 1 concern,” Levandowski said in an interview with the New Yorker. “If it is, you’ll never do anything. It’s always safer to leave the car in the driveway. You’ll never learn from a real mistake.”

To read the whole New Yorker article, click here

NOW WATCH: Apple's entire iPhone XS event in 8 minutes

See Also: