Sharpe to the Point: Automatic for the People?

Jim SharpeMay 2018
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Around 10 o’clock on a recent Sunday evening, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was crossing a street in Tempe while pushing a bicycle – sans crosswalk – when she was hit and killed by a self-driving Uber SUV.

Her death won’t stop the inevitable rise of more autonomous vehicles on our roads and what will almost certainly be a safer world for passengers and pedestrians. But as testing goes, do we need to slow our roll?

As we process the news that the first human being killed by a self-driving car in the U.S. happened here, I have to admit that I haven’t been the biggest cheerleader of these autonomous vehicles. Because of what they may do to my day job. Right now, more people listen to the radio than watch television or even consume media on a smartphone.

It’s because it’s convenient. And because it’s really the only media you can consume whilst keeping your eyes on the road and being, ahem, a responsible motorist.

So my dark, fatalistic fantasy goes something like this: millions upon millions of family-owned, self-driving cars, filled with “drivers” watching cat videos on YouTube on their commute to work, instead of listening to me on Arizona’s Morning News. And if that doesn’t inspire any sympathy… what about Detour Dan? You love him, right? Gone-zo.

Radio personalities are not alone in being super unexcited about cars driving themselves. A lot of folks think it’s a bad idea. Most of them are people who think they are better drivers than they really are. (This author just raised his hand.) A few of them are people who think it’s part of a global conspiracy to control our minds and reproductive habits. (Not sure about that one.)

All of them probably took heart when, following that Uber crash, the company halted testing here and in other cities. Governor Doug Ducey reacted days later by suspending Uber’s ability to test on Arizona roads.

Don’t be fooled. Self-driving cars will be back. Once they nail this technology, computers will be much better drivers than all of us. But they haven’t. Nailed it, that is.

It’s one thing for those of us who are suspicious about self-driving technology to criticize it, but it’s another thing altogether when experts in the field are saying we need to be more cautious. After Herzberg’s death, Raj Rajkumar, the head of Carnegie Mellon University’s respected self-driving car laboratory, pointed out that autonomous driving technology “isn’t like a bug with your phone. People can get killed. Companies need to take a deep breath. The technology is not there yet.”

Wired magazine put it starkly: “Human drivers kill 1.16 people for every 100 million miles driven. Waymo, Uber and the rest combined are nowhere near covering that kind of distance, and they’ve already killed one.”

There were warning signs that Uber’s technology wasn’t ready for prime time. According to BuzzFeed, two days before the crash, an internal performance report about Uber’s driverless testing in Arizona showed that some vehicles were having trouble going more than a mile without an operator taking over the wheel or braking. Ducey, in his letter announcing Uber’s testing suspension, said it raised “many questions about the ability of Uber to continue testing in Arizona.”

That sounds a lot different than 2016, when Uber ran afoul of San Francisco officials for not having proper permits, and Ducey welcomed them here “with open arms and wide open roads.” Later, The Guardian uncovered emails between the governor’s office and Uber that kept the testing program secret with limited oversight. Ouch.

The Valley seems like a great place to test. We experience little in the way of inclement weather and have fewer pedestrians than most urban areas. But maybe testing should be moved back to test tracks and rural roads? Make no mistake: There are still hundreds out there, even with Uber’s fleet garaged.

So as we continue to test autonomous cars in Arizona, we are left with this question: Are we willing to say that people like Elaine Herzberg are acceptable collateral damage in the fight for the future?

These same questions were asked when the railroad and the automobile were introduced in America.

Back then, the answer was yes.

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