Many companies have invested millions in self-driving technologies – including Uber and Google – but after the first death involving an autonomous vehicle, will they ever fully replace human drivers?
Self-driving cars have just killed a person for the first time. A fully autonomous Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona on Sunday evening during testing, despite the fact that an emergency driver was also behind the wheel.
49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was walking her bicycle across the road when she was hit by the customised Volvo XC90 travelling at around 40mph. Troubling images from the scene show her crumpled bicycle on the pavement.
Uber has taken the decision to suspend all further testing in “Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto” following the incident. After such an event, should companies still push forward with their autonomous vehicle programs?
The problems with autonomy
The technology necessary for autonomous driving is still very young. It’s only been around for the past 10 years or so and is still experiencing teething problems. The unpredictability of human behaviour is central to these issues. Interaction with pedestrians can prove extremely problematic for example and can have devastating consequences such as the accident that occurred on Sunday evening.
Writing for the New York Times, Daisuke Wakabayashi said that “The accident was a reminder that self-driving technology is still in the experimental stage, and governments are still trying to figure out how to regulate it”.
Uber had a run-in with the government back in 2016, when several of their self-driving Volvos ran through red lights in California. Rather embarrassingly, the California Department of Motor Vehicles ordered them to remove the cars from roads or they would “initiate legal action”. It’s possible that Uber will suffer a similar fate in Arizona after the death of Elaine Herzberg.
But issues with the technology’s functionality is not the only problem facing the driverless revolution. Consumers still have to be convinced of safety. A recent poll (see above) conducted by Reuters and Ipsos in the US found that just 27% of respondents would feel comfortable travelling in a self-driving car.
If the technology is ever to find its way into the mainstream, companies investing in it need to address this problem. Michael Bennet, an associate research professor at Arizona State University who works with artificial intelligence, has admitted that these companies are “going to have to do a lot to prove that the technology is safe.”
The Driverless Revolution
There is the case that, over the long term, driverless vehicles will dramatically reduce the number of road deaths. Waymo, the autonomous vehicle branch of Google, says that 94% of car crashes involve human choice or error in the US. Deaths that their vehicles, they say, can help prevent.
Waymo’s vehicles are able to “detect pedestrians, cyclists, vehicles, road work and more from up to three football fields away in all 360 degrees”. It can autonomously make room for cyclists – perhaps the most vulnerable of road users – sense when they’re indicating to turn, slow down, and allow them to do so.
But the benefits aren’t purely about road safety. Wired Magazine reports that there would be a significant economic impact too as the industry could add some $7 trillion to the global economy. “Over time, service, application and content revenue generated by mobility-as-a-service will supplant the value of vehicle sales as core sources of shareholder value creation”.
There’s also the way these vehicles will make people’s lives easier. Instead of long arduous commutes to and from work, people will be able to sleep, to read, to eat on the way to their jobs, freeing up time for the rest of their daily activities.
Perhaps less obvious are the benefits relating to crime fighting. The 360 cameras and sensors of autonomous vehicles can be incredibly useful tools if a crime happens nearby, as it is recording constantly in order to operate. The Economist says that “When a crime is committed, the police will ask nearby cars if they saw anything”. This, of course, proves problematic when the incident in question directly involves the car itself, as we saw on Sunday evening.
It has been announced that Uber has suspended its autonomous vehicle program in Arizona following the death of Elaine Herzberg. They made a statement via their twitter account:
Our hearts go out to the victim’s family. We’re fully cooperating with @TempePolice and local authorities as they investigate this incident.
— Uber Comms (@Uber_Comms) March 19, 2018
Toyota has also ceased testing of their driverless cars on public roads since the accident. It is still unclear whether Waymo plans to do the same.