In Style + Design

The Self-Driving Car Is Coming, But At What Cost?

The news seemed shocking – a 49-year-old woman run down and killed in Arizona by a self-driving car, becoming the first unlucky human ever to die from such a deadly software failure, but surely not the last.

Just a week earlier, however, at the festival of ideas and future gazing that is South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, a panel of experts had actually predicted just such a death. And the global media coverage that followed.

Bryan Reimer, a professor from MIT’s Age Lab, and Brian Strickland – formerly the top automotive safety official in the US as head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and now a part of the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets – were part of a panel discussion called ‘Who Takes the Wheel on Self-Driving Car Safety?’.

Both agreed that Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) are going to form a major part of our transport infrastructure, but they disagreed strongly on whether that’s a good idea.

A test car from Uber’s Advanced Technologies Centre Photo: Uber

Professor Reimer fears that, no matter how clever the tech is, the complexity of humans interacting with autonomous systems will make for a dangerous and unpredictable future.

“We are predictably irrational by nature, and we will interact with robotic systems in ways that we shouldn’t,” Dr Reimer said.

“And when the robots are in charge of driving cars, they’re going to kill people, and I don’t want to be negative, but that’s going to happen, there will be fatalities.”

Strickland agreed that crashes involving AVs were inevitable, and predicted that the media focus on them would be intense, but he says safety officials need to “push back”.

“We’re going to lose a lot fewer people with these vehicles, but it’s going to get so much more attention, because the media will over-exaggerate the risk to the detriment of something that could save a lot of people,” Strickland says.

“The only way we can address these questions is to get these cars out there on the road. You have to do real-world driving to teach the AI, and you have to get them out there, in a controlled way, in larger numbers.”

Google’s Waymo Car Photo: Waymo

And the US is moving rapidly towards doing exactly that – allowing AVs on its roads, in vast numbers – fleets of as many as 20,000 cars – with Jessica Nigro, a lobbyist who works in Washington DC for Mercedes-Benz, claiming there is plenty of political support for such testing.

“The US is by far the most progressed on this, we have bipartisan support, and you’ve probably heard Donald Trump saying how he wants to reduce the amount of paperwork it takes to get things done, and he and his administration have said they won’t stand in the way of this,” Nigro explains.

California recently passed laws that will allow AVs to test on the State’s roads without a human on board. Under current rules, a person must be in the driver’s seat of a self-driving car at all times, hand poised over the kill switch and ready to take over if necessary. Sadly the person who was in the self-driving Uber that killed the woman in Arizona was unable to do anything to help.

Elaine Herzberg, 49, was walking her bicycle outside a pedestrian crossing on a four-lane road in Tempe, Phoenix at about 10pm when she was struck by the self-driving Uber, which was travelling at 65km/h, according to police.

The Californian regulations will require only that someone is monitoring what each AV is up to, from a remote location.

Google’s Waymo Car Photo: Waymo

Ms Nigro says Mercedes-Benz is working keenly towards an autonomous future, and that people should not be scared. She believes the benefits of switching to self-driving cars are too overwhelming to be ignored.

The biggest driver for change, Ms Nigro and others point out, is the road toll, which was more than 37,000 in the US last year. That’s more than 100 people dying on the roads, every day, and some 94 per cent of those accidents are the result of human error.

“There are lot of unknowns, but I believe in the technology, and it will save lives. In the long term, 30 to 50 years from now, my personal belief is that driving will be like riding horses. If you love riding horses today, you can do that as a hobby but you wouldn’t ride one to work on public roads, it wouldn’t be allowed because it’s unsafe,” Nigro says.

“Once we start seeing these safety benefits it will be difficult not to embrace self-driving technology.”

Strickland, however, believes driving will always be a lot more common than slow-poking around on a horse.

“I think it’s going to be a mixed environment forever,” he said.

“We’re a cowboy country, and even when you do have a fully automated vehicle that can take you from coast to coast, there is still going to be someone who wants to drive their Ferrari California, that’s not going to go away. Legacy vehicles are going to be here forever.”

Published 27 March, 2018