At Google's annual meeting Wednesday, attendees had the chance to question both Eric Schmidt, the company's executive chairman, and Larry Page, its CEO. But one shareholder wanted answers from an executive sitting in the crowd: co-founder Sergey Brin, who has been working closely on the company's driverless car project.
John Simpson, who works for the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog and is a longtime thorn in Google's side, wanted to hear about the 11 reported accidents involving Google's "robot cars" — accidents Google says were not caused by the software controlling the vehicles.
While the exchange didn't reveal much new information about Google's safety record, it did underscore the occasional absurdity of annual shareholder meetings, where company critics are given a rare opportunity to directly question executives — provided they're also shareholders.
Simpson is an oft-cited and persistent critic of Google's privacy and political record, and yet he's also a shareholder, meaning he's vested in the success of the business. His professional advocacy, on the other hand, is done on behalf of the public.
Brin, who was seated in the audience and needed to be given a microphone to answer the questions, was initially frosty in his response. "I'm quite surprised you're a shareholder," he told Simpson. "Consumer Watchdog has been quite hostile to Google."
"Why wouldn't I be?" Simpson asked after some back and forth. "I get to ask you questions and I've also made money on my investments."
Google won't release the accident reports submitted to the DMV, due to the privacy rights of other drivers involved. But Brin said that the details already shared with the media and shareholders is what was in the reports, minus the private information. "We have many responsibilities to be truthful to the press and the DMV and so forth," he said.
Brin then described the 11 accidents the cars have been involved in on public roads, consistent with what Google has said previously — "seven or eight times we were rear-ended," and one time, when a human was driving one of the test vehicles, they rear-ended another driver.
"Our greatest learning is that people don't pay attention, even trained drivers." Brin said. "The other three were situations where the car was not driving itself, we were at a stop light or we were sideswiped.
"I'm very proud of the record of our cars," he said. "We don't claim to be perfect, our goal is to beat human drivers."
Chris Urmson, the head of Google's self-driving car program, has previously told the Associated Press that "not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident," and that Google cars had driven over 1.7 million miles.
In a letter released today, Brin said: "The increasing power of computation extends well beyond the internet. One example close to my heart is our self-driving car project. The goal is to make cars capable of driving themselves entirely without human intervention. We hope to make roadways far safer and transportation far more affordable and accessible to those who can't drive."
John Simpson told Sergey Brin that he was a shareholder in Google so he could "get to ask you questions." An earlier version of this article said "ask nasty questions."
Matthew Zeitlin is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Zeitlin reports on Wall Street and big banks.
Contact Matthew Zeitlin at email@example.com.
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