We imagine a future where we no longer need to be driving ourselves to be in the driver’s seat. Car manufacturers are experimenting with autonomous cars because they open up new possibilities regarding what we spend the time inside the vehicle doing: whether it is working, relaxing, or enjoying a movie on the road, the possibility of our time in vehicles being allotted to more than changing gears or waiting out a traffic jam opens up new (and profitable) avenues.
Thus the news of one of Uber’s self-driving vehicles having crashed into a pedestrian and killing her came as a shock and another setback for an industry that is betting heavily on new technologies to transform transportation. The accident in Tempe, Arizona, marks the first fatality involving an autonomous vehicle, and as a result Uber quickly suspended testing in Tempe, as well as in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto. Toyota followed suit when it halted tests of its “Chauffeur” autonomous driving system on U.S. public roads.
This comes after a self-driving Uber SUV was struck by another car in the same city in 2017. The vehicle was operating on its own when it was struck by another vehicle making a left turn at an intersection, with the police later reporting that the self-driving SUV was obeying the law and the driver in the other car who didn’t yield was cited for a moving violation.
In May 2016, an accident where a Tesla Model S driver plowed into a truck near Gainesville, Florida, already drew attention because of the questions it had raised about the safety of self-driving cars. At the time, Tesla reported that the car’s sensors system failed to distinguish a large white 18-wheel truck and trailer crossing the highway against a bright spring sky. The car thus attempted to drive full speed under the trailer, “with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S”. In a report released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) however, it was found that the driver had been warned seven times by the vehicle to put his hands on the wheel.
Uber, for now
Initial reports from the Uber accident state that the woman abruptly walked from a center median into a lane of traffic and was struck by a self-driving Uber operating in autonomous mode, with Sylvia Moir, police chief in Tempe, Ariz., saying that the video evidence from the car make it “very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway”.
Although the results in all three prominent accidents where autonomous cars were involved showed that the technology was not to blame, it does shift the users’ consciousness as to how far self-driving cars have come, and still need to go. Not only has this accident raised more flags about the safety of these vehicles, but also on the legislation involved regarding where these cars are tested, and who is to blame when robot cars do kill.