The National Safety Council said that nearly 40,000 people died in 2016 from motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. We all know that driving a car is statistically far more more dangerous than flying in an airplane and more likely than being a victim of a terrorist attack. But for most of us, driving is a necessity.
The promise of a roadway full of smarter-than-humans autonomous vehicles that can react faster and pay closer attention sounds appealing. That story entered a new chapter when on March 18 a self-driving Uber vehicle killed a pedestrian.
The Tempe, Arizona police released dashcam video of the incident which shows the victim suddenly appearing out of the darkness in front of the vehicle. A passenger in the car appears to be otherwise occupied until the accident occurs.
Google, Tesla and other companies including Uber has had autonomous vehicles in test mode for quite some time in select cities across the U.S. These test cars always have a human safety driver behind the wheel to take control of the vehicle in an emergency situation. In this case, he was not paying attention - which is one of the "advantages" to using a self-driving car - and may not have reacted any faster than the car.
My own car (a Subaru Forester) has some safety features that try to keep me in my lane and can turn the wheel to correct my errors. It generally works well, but I have seen it fooled by snow on the ground or salted white surfaces and faded lane lines. If I fail to signal that I am changing lanes, it will beep or try to pull me back. Recently, while exiting a highway at night that was empty but for my vehicle, I failed to signal that I was exiting and the car jerked me back into the lane. It surprised me enough that I ended up missing the exit. I suppose that is my fault for not signaling,.
many of these vehicles use a form of LiDAR technology (Light Detection and Ranging) to detect other vehicles, road signs, and pedestrians. It has issues when moving from dark to light or light to dark and can be fooled by reflections (even from the dashboard or windshield of your own car).
I have said for awhile now that I will feel safe in an autonomous vehicle when all the cars with me on the road are autonomous vehicles. Add a few humans and anything can happen. I think it is possible that we may transition by using autonomous vehicle dedicated lanes.
Should this accident stop research in this area? No. It was an inevitability and more injuries and deaths will occur. Still, these vehicles have a better overall safety record than the average human driver. But the accident starts a new chapter in this research and I'm sure companies, municipalities and other government agencies will become more careful about what they allow on the roads.
Self-driving cars are always equipped with multiple-view video cameras to record situations. It is a bit sad that dashcams have become more and more popular devices for all cars, not for self-driving purposes but to record an accident, road rage or interactions with the police. It is dangerous on the roads in many ways.
The Tempe Police posted to Twitter about the accident, including the video from the vehicle.
Tempe Police Vehicular Crimes Unit is actively investigating the details of this incident that occurred on March 18th. We will provide updated information regarding the investigation once it is available. pic.twitter.com/2dVP72TziQ — Tempe Police (@TempePolice) March 21, 2018