Uber self-driving car kills US pedestrian

Robo-cab: A self-driving Uber Volvo XC90 — the model of car that hit Elaine Herzberg.

Would you use a self-driving car? The first fatality involving a pedestrian and an autonomous car has put Uber in the firing line. Some call the crash a “wake-up call” for the whole industry.

On average 16 pedestrians die on America’s roads every day. Last Sunday, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg became a part of that dreadful statistic when she was knocked down and killed in Tempe, Arizona. But it was not any normal car that hit her. It was a self-driving car developed by Uber.

It is the first time a pedestrian has been killed by a self-driving car, and police are now investigating exactly how the collision happened.

Some details are clear. The car was travelling at 40mph in autonomous mode with an engineer at the wheel. It did not brake when it hit Herzberg, who had stepped into the road without using a designated crossing.

After reviewing footage from the incident, Tempe police chief Sylvia Moir claimed it would have been difficult for a vehicle to “avoid this collision in any kind of mode”, and that Uber “would likely not be at fault”.

But whatever the outcome of the ongoing investigation, the incident has sparked grave concerns around the safety of autonomous vehicles.

Statistically, one American road-user dies for every 100 million miles driven by US cars. Uber’s self-driving vehicles have now matched that rate after driving just 3 million miles.

Some think flawed technology has played a part. For example, self-driving vehicles do not always respond to unexpected circumstances, and can struggle to differentiate between certain objects. After the incident America’s Centre for Auto Safety claimed that people are being treated like “guinea pigs” — endangered by imperfect technology.

Despite these safety fears, in the long run self-driving cars may save many lives. Globally, over one million people are killed in road crashes every year. One study estimates that self-driving cars could cut the rate of accidents by up to 95%.

How accurate this estimate is remains to be seen, however it could become clear sooner than many realise. Last year, British chancellor Philip Hammond pledged to bring self-driving cars to Britain’s roads by 2021.

But would you choose to ride in one?

Crash course

Of course, say some. Once the technology is tightened up, they will be far safer than traditional cars — if that is not already the case. And if we all embrace them, the world will see countless other benefits too, including cleaner air and less congested cities. Whilst the occasional accident may still happen, the benefits of self-driving cars are undeniable.

Absolutely not, reply others. Any technology has the capacity to malfunction, including self-driving cars. Only this time it can be a matter of life and death. What is more, computerising car networks leaves them vulnerable to being hacked, which could cause mass chaos and destruction.

You Decide

  1. Are self-driving cars a good invention?
  2. Do humans rely too much on technology?

Activities

  1. Imagine a future world in which self-driving cars have entirely replaced traditional vehicles. List all the ways you think people’s lives will have changed. Share your ideas with the class. Are all of the potential consequences positive?
  2. Do some additional research into how self-driving cars work. Use the New York Times link in Become an Expert as a starting point. Draw a diagram which explains how the technology operates, including labels and annotations.

Some People Say...

“People are so bad at driving cars that computers don't have to be that good to be much better.”

Marc Andreessen

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Uber has suspended self-driving car tests in all North American cities following the accident. We know that the car involved was in autonomous mode when the collision occurred and that Herzberg was not using a designated crossing. The weather was clear and dry, and police say the test engineer showed no signs of impairment.
What do we not know?
We cannot yet say who, or what, was at fault. Legal experts are likely to examine the car system and sensors, the actions of the victim, and the response of the test driver. We do not know if a human-controlled car would have been able to avoid the same collision.

Word Watch

16
According to the Financial Times.
Killed
In 2016 a Tesla driver was killed after putting the car in autopilot mode. It was the first ever fatality involving a self-driving car.
Just
Legal expert Bryant Walker Smith claims that despite the incident happening well in advance of the 100 million miles threshold, it “does not tell us anything statistically”. However he does concede that “it is early” for an accident to happen.
Objects
For more on how the cars work and their potential flaws read the New York Times link in Become An Expert.
Guinea pigs
Some have blamed the lax regulation that Arizona has applied to self-driving cars. For more information read the Bloomberg link in Become An Expert.
One million
According to the Association For Safe International Road Travel.
95%
According to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Subjects

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