"If it is your job to advance technology, safety cannot be your No. 1 concern," Levandowski told me. "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."
Levandowski had modified the cars' software so that he could take them on otherwise forbidden routes. A Google executive recalls witnessing Taylor and Levandowski shouting at each other. Levandowski told Taylor that the only way to show him why his approach was necessary was to take a ride together. The men, both still furious, jumped into a self-driving Prius and headed off.
The car went onto a freeway, where it travelled past an on-ramp. According to people with knowledge of events that day, the Prius accidentally boxed in another vehicle, a Camry. A human driver could easily have handled the situation by slowing down and letting the Camry merge into traffic, but Google's software wasn't prepared for this scenario. The cars continued speeding down the freeway side by side. The Camry's driver jerked his car onto the right shoulder. Then, apparently trying to avoid a guardrail, he veered to the left; the Camry pinwheeled across the freeway and into the median. Levandowski, who was acting as the safety driver, swerved hard to avoid colliding with the Camry, causing Taylor to injure his spine so severely that he eventually required multiple surgeries.
The Prius regained control and turned a corner on the freeway, leaving the Camry behind. Levandowski and Taylor didn't know how badly damaged the Camry was. They didn't go back to check on the other driver or to see if anyone else had been hurt. Neither they nor other Google executives made inquiries with the authorities. The police were not informed that a self-driving algorithm had contributed to the accident.
Levandowski, rather than being cowed by the incident, later defended it as an invaluable source of data, an opportunity to learn how to avoid similar mistakes. He sent colleagues an e-mail with video of the near-collision. Its subject line was "Prius vs. Camry." (Google refused to show me a copy of the video or to divulge the exact date and location of the incident.) He remained in his leadership role and continued taking cars on non-official routes.
According to former Google executives, in Project Chauffeur's early years there were more than a dozen accidents, at least three of which were serious. One of Google's first test cars, nicknamed kitt, was rear-ended by a pickup truck after it braked suddenly, because it couldn't distinguish between a yellow and a red traffic light. Two of the Google employees who were in the car later sought medical treatment. A former Google executive told me that the driver of the pickup, whose family was in the truck, was unlicensed, and asked the company not to contact insurers. kitt's rear was crushed badly enough that it was permanently taken off the road.
In response to questions about these incidents, Google's self-driving unit disputed that its cars are unsafe. "Safety is our highest priority as we test and develop our technology," a spokesperson wrote to me. [...]
As for the Camry incident, the spokesperson [said that] because Google's self-driving car did not directly hit the Camry, Google did not cause the accident.
These words actually came out of this creature's mouth, on purpose, when it knew that humans could hear it speaking:
"The only thing that matters is the future," [Levandowski] told me after the civil trial was settled. "I don't even know why we study history. It's entertaining, I guess -- the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the Industrial Revolution, and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn't really matter. You don't need to know that history to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow."