The recent death of a bicyclist in Arizona that was struck by a self-driving Uber test vehicle and the death of the driver of a partially-automated Tesla have raised new concerns over the safety of autonomous vehicles. While technology in self-driving cars can potentially save lives by “seeing” things the human eye cannot detect, these recent fatalities raise new concerns about the emerging technology.
Uber has suspended all self-driving test vehicles until a full investigation into the pedestrian fatality is complete. The Tesla accident was investigated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which released a 538-page report on the accident. According to the investigation, the Tesla driver was using the self-driving technology to steer the car, accelerate and decelerate, and apply brakes.
The NHTSA report indicated that the Tesla driver’s total travel time was 41 minutes, with 37.5 of those minutes using the self-driving system. During that time, the driver’s hands were on the steering wheel for a mere one and a half minutes. The Tesla was traveling at 74 miles per hour, which was nine miles per hour faster than the posted speed limit.
There is speculation that the driver was watching a video at the time of the crash and ignored repeated warnings to take the wheel of the car. The accident occurred when a truck crossed into the path of the Tesla, fatally injuring the driver. According to the system’s technology, the driver was distracted and missed a seven-second period during which he should have seen the approaching truck.
The advantage of autonomous vehicles is that they increase safety when used in conjunction with a live driver who is ready to interact and work with the system’s technology. Drivers should always have their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road; but many become complacent, believing that the technology will get them to their destination safely. Distracted driving is still lethal, even in self-driving vehicles.
As automated technology continues to evolve, our experiences, both good and bad, are helping to shape the industry. Safety is the top priority of all self-driving cars, but recent events show us that there are plenty of technological and societal issues that still need to be developed. As more self-driving cars hit the road, experience will serve as an effective teacher.
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