Will robot cars be our saviors, or our executioners? Let’s ask the million or so people who have seen the dashboard cam video of a self-driving vehicle running down Elaine Herzberg, killing her the night of March 19 in Tempe, Ariz. The footage shows the driver was not paying attention when his Volvo SUV, equipped with Uber’s autonomous-vehicle system, failed to respond to the sudden appearance of a human being in the middle of the road. Herzberg’s death at the hands of a robot calls into question a lot of the hype surrounding self-driving cars. They’re supposed to be better than us, safer in the dark because of laser sighting and high-speed sensors. But the weather that night was clear. The road was empty. According to police statements, there was no indication the vehicle engaged its brakes prior to the accident. And the accompanying video of the driver indicates no collision warning was given. Uber gives up autonomous vehicle testing rights in Calif. “The technology should have seen the pedestrian well in advance,” said Dr. Steven Shladover of the Institute of Transportation Studies of the University of California at Berkeley, who watched the video. “The fact that it doesn’t is worrying.” Uber immediately put a halt to its testing program. On Monday, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey stripped Uber of its right to test in the state, after he had welcomed the company with open arms. Yet it seems unlikely it will result in a prolonged slowdown in autonomous-vehicle testing and eventual deployment. Besides Uber and Nvidia, the semiconductor firm whose chips act as the brains for many autonomous vehicles, the only other major company to halt testing in response to the accident is Toyota, and only in the U.S., and only for its fully-autonomous “chauffeur” program, not its semi-autonomous “guardian” program.
Waymo to buy 20,000 Jaguars for robotic ride-hailing service While city officials have requested a temporary testing moratorium in Boston, California has reaffirmed that testing in the state can continue under current regulations. Waymo, the AV division of Google parent Alphabet, just put in an order for 20,000 Jaguars for its robot fleet. Waymo is not subject to Arizona’s ban, and will continue to test in Phoenix.
There were expectations that the first fatal crash involving an autonomous Tesla Model S in 2016 would set back autonomous vehicles for years. In fact, the opposite happened. Waymo vehicles, for example, drove 2 million miles in self-driving mode across 25 cities in 2017, the company said, lifting its total autonomous miles to 4 million, as it accelerated testing to prepare for the launch of its ride-hailing fleet later this year. Likewise, Uber has driven 2 million autonomous miles since 2016, with the last million autonomous miles being driven in just 100 days prior to the Las Vegas CES technology show in January. In short, the industry learned from the accident and quickly moved on. The same likely will occur this time around. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board is underway, as are investigations likely by the companies involved, including Uber and key suppliers such as Nvidia. But unlike most accidents of this kind, there is no question about what happened. The accident was caught on video by at least two on-board cameras. The actions of the vehicle and the driver before and during the accident were recorded. This may actually be one of the easiest accident investigations the Tempe police department has ever had, and one that provides valuable data on how to prevent future accidents. Despite the accident that killed Herzberg, indications are the technology that goes into autonomous vehicles does work, to a degree. Even without full driverless autonomy, partially autonomous technology such as crash avoidance and lane detection is increasingly a standard option on production cars and is expected to reduce fatalities, just as backup cameras are already reducing fender benders in shopping mall parking lots.
The technology may save lives in other ways. The city of Las Vegas wants to deploy WiFi connected autonomous vehicles to roam the streets providing real-time updates on road conditions, traffic, weather and accidents, according to Tina Quigley, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada. The information will be used to guide maintenance crews to potholes and road hazards, and first responders to accidents, possibly saving lives. “The real crisis brewing in this country is distracted driving,” said Grayson Brulte, co-chairman of the City of Beverly Hills Autonomous Vehicle Task Force, noting that almost 6,000 pedestrians were killed nationwide in traffic accidents in 2017, up more than 20% from 2014. “Autonomous vehicle technology is the only way to stop that.” It may be, but the industry needs to consider how many innocent lives will be sacrificed in the name of a safer driving experience.