EVERY day around 100 people are killed on America’s roads, including 16 pedestrians. Each death is a tragedy, but that of Elaine Herzberg, who died after being hit by a car in Tempe, Arizona on the evening of March 18th, was a tragedy of a new kind. It was the first known case of a pedestrian being killed by a self-driving car. The accident has raised questions about whether America’s rules surrounding the testing of autonomous vehicles (AVs) are too lax.
The vehicle that struck Ms Herzberg was being tested in “autonomous mode” by Uber, a ride-hailing firm. Local police say it was travelling at 38mph (61kph) on a road with a speed limit of 45mph, and that video from the vehicle shows Ms Herzberg, who was wheeling a bicycle by the side of the road, stepping suddenly into the car’s path. A human safety driver in the vehicle did not anticipate the collision and had not taken manual control. The police and federal safety bodies have launched investigations, during which Uber has suspended operation of its AVs in Arizona, Pittsburgh and San Francisco.
Many American cities and states permit the testing of AVs on public roads, with varying degrees of licensing and oversight. Boston, for example, requires AVs to pass a driving test in a limited area before heading out into the wider city. California requires companies testing AVs to provide annual safety reports. Arizona is a particularly attractive environment for AV-makers, because its streets are regular grids, the weather is reliably dry and warm (snow can confuse the LIDAR sensors AVs use to scan their surroundings) and its regulators have been unusually welcoming. Since 2015, no special permits or licences have been needed to operate AVs in Arizona, though the governor announced a tweaking of the rules on March 1st.
Those new rules will now come under intense scrutiny, as will legislation, currently in the works in Washington, DC, to introduce federal safety standards for AV testing. This proposes exempting AVs from some existing safety standards, and would prevent states from introducing their own rules for AVs. The aim is to spur innovation by simplifying the regulatory environment. But in the wake of the accident in Tempe, road-safety advocates have called for the rules around AVs to be tightened, not loosened. Boston has asked nuTonomy, an AV firm, to suspend testing. Toyota said it would have a voluntary pause in the testing of AVs on American roads. The firm said it was concerned about the emotional effect of the Tempe accident on its safety drivers.
Proponents of AVs often cite the safety benefits of vehicles that can drive themselves, noting that 94% of accidents are caused by human error. General Motors, America’s biggest carmaker, has set a goal of “zero crashes”. But developing the technology means testing it on public roads, where accidents involving AVs and other road users are inevitable. AVs will never eliminate road deaths, and expecting them to do so is to hold them to an impossible standard. A more realistic goal, suggests Amnon Shashua of Mobileye, a maker of AV technology, is to reduce the number of road deaths a thousandfold. But in a paper published last year, he warned of the danger of a “winter of autonomous driving”, suggesting that because of regulatory uncertainty, fatal accidents involving fully autonomous vehicles could plunge the industry into legal limbo, or kill it altogether.
The extent to which Ms Herzberg’s death will change attitudes towards AVs, or influence the regulation of the industry, depends to a large extent on the findings of the various investigations. It is important to avoid unnecessary risks when developing and implementing what promises to be a life-saving technology. But the sad truth is that there are bound to be fatal accidents on the road to a driverless world.
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