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UPDATED: Mar 21, 2018
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On March 18, a pedestrian attempting to cross a road was struck and killed by a self-driving Uber vehicle. While autonomous vehicles (AV) have previously been involved in crashes, this incident marks the first fatality.
The side of the self-driving argument that support mainstreaming AVs points out that the pedestrian crossed illegally and the resulting death would have happened no matter who or what was driving.
The opposing argument is that AVs are not ready and never will be able to compute real-life situations involving pedestrians and other “surprising” events, so the whole self-driving movement should be reined in and maybe even scrapped.
Regardless of whether you find yourself on either side of this dichotomy or somewhere in the middle, the incident begs the question: What is going to happen to the self-driving industry? There are three possibilities that we’ll investigate below.
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#1 – The Industry Powers Through
The first non-driver death of the autonomous age and police are already blaming the victim. “Crossing outside of the crosswalk” was never a valid excuse for traffic deaths, and it provides no cover for autonomous mobility companies. https://t.co/BSCgeTahCv
— Janette Sadik-Khan (@JSadikKhan) March 19, 2018
The National Transportation Safety Board has a team investigating this crash and they and the Tempe Police Department will make a ruling in a timely fashion.
If the incident is proven to be unavoidable, Uber is not found at fault, and the general public agrees, the industry as a whole may continue blazing forward with only a short-term setback.
The growth of the autonomous vehicle has been huge in recent years and has suffered little opposition. Expanding beyond self-driving cars just transporting people from point A to point B, Ford recently applied for a patent for an autonomous police vehicle.
A short-term setback is a result with the least impact possible. Uber has pulled their AV pilot program out of testing across North America, proving a setback is inevitable, but the question lies in how big the setback will be.
With vindication and minimal public outcry, Uber could shortly resume testing and their competitors may face no long-term change at all.
#2 – Self-Driving Technology Slows and Is Subject to More Regulations and Scrutiny
Toyota has pulled out of the autonomous car movement. If other manufacturers and companies follow suit, the industry will lose funding and interest. The setback is huge and could result in a longterm growth decline.
While the money funding the research for self-driving vehicles comes from major companies, ultimately, public interest fuels where those companies invest.
Raj Rajkumar, a professor at Carnegie Mellon and self-driving industry expert even encourages the industry to slow down their push and take time to earn the trust of the public.
Here are some ways public confident in self-driving vehicles could regain momentum:
- More Testing – Michigan has two self-driving testing areas off public streets. Perhaps more time will be spent ironing out kinks in facilities such as those before public streets are used as a testing ground again.
- More Regulations – Part of earning the trust back from the public could include subjecting themselves to more regulations. Arizona is very friendly to the AV movement. They have very few restrictions and don’t require companies to report statistics.
- More Human Involvement – Some argue that truly autonomous vehicles will never be the future, and instead a hybrid of a physically driverless vehicle with a remote driver will become the norm.
If statistics show that self-driving vehicles are actually safer than human-driven cars, the public will probably and rightly support the innovation.
This freedom for the AVs has caused Arizona to be a hot spot for Uber and its competitors.
The industry will likely recover and move forward, but it’s a real possibility that they will lose support and will progress more slowly.
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#3 – Self-Driving Cars End Right Here
This is probably the least likely of the possible outcomes, but it could happen if similar incidents occur and the technology is proven to be incapable of reacting safely in unusual circumstances.
Uber has already filed a patent for a car that communicates with pedestrians, so obviously, this area of concern about technology is already being addressed.
Many people are already leery of being a passenger in a car without a human driver. This fatal incident in Tempe could push those on the fence to become against the continuation of self-driving testing.
The director of Arizona State University’s (one of Uber’s AV testing grounds) Risk Innovation Lab, Andrew Maynard, believes that this event should not bring an end to autonomous vehicles, but admits that “this is a decision point for the manufacturers, for regulators and for consumers.”
What the Future Holds
While a middle-of-the-road outcome is most likely, either of the other two possibilities could happen. Likely, the industry will suffer a setback (as already demonstrated) and will continue more cautiously and with less support.
Much of the effect depends on whether this incident shows negligence on the part of Uber or not.
Even with the recent growth in the self-driving market, the vast majority of people own and drive their own vehicle. And for the near present, that’s not going to change.
Compare car insurance quotes regularly to make sure you’re not overpaying for the coverage you need. You could save hundreds of dollars in annual premiums just be switching providers.
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