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Lessons from the Uber fiasco in Arizona

Yesterday’s incident of a self-driving Uber car mowing down a cyclist perhaps marks the beginning of an era when technology turns a threat to the human race  – an idea so far seen only in comic books and sci-fi flicks. The circumstances that led to the incident and the probability of another such event needs to be analyzed before any further step is taken in this poorly understood technology.

The fact that there was a human operator inside the car at the time of the incident who failed to avert it, throws light on how impractical the projections were related to this technology. Only two months back, a Tesla (TSLA) Model S reportedly crashed into the rear of a firetruck while on its autopilot mode. Even before this, in the initial days of testing, Uber faced a setback when its self-driving prototype was caught on camera jumping red signal narrowly missing a pedestrian.

An uber self driving car on road
Image courtesy: Dillu, Wikipedia

And yet here we are, with the technology claiming its first victim. All the manufacturers of autonomous vehicles including Alphabet’s (GOOGL) Waymo, General Motors (GM) as well as Ford (F) unanimously hail the safety prospects of driverless technology. But how true are these claims?

According to data released by the Department of Transportation, about 1.18 deaths are reported in every 100 million vehicle miles traveled. Even all the companies combined, driverless car makers do not have the required travel experience to make a credible claim on safety aspects, given one person has already died. Imagine a future with more of these robots freely roaming about on our roads  —  Imagining the dystopian world of Mad Max is possibly less horrific.

Critics of driverless technology claim the features embedded into the currently tested models – be it Tesla or GM, is still far from the safety standards promised by the companies. And it’s probably true, since neither the weather nor the traffic was abnormal when Uber’s autonomous Volvo XC90 mowed down the unsuspecting woman yesterday in Arizona. The critics claim people who are on the road are treated no less like guinea pigs when the tests are conducted out in the real world.

Arizona is a favorite test region for all car-markers due to the lack of restrictions and bureaucratic procedures to get self-driving vehicles on the road.

Safety applies to pedestrians also!

The primary lesson automakers need to understand is that human safety comes above technological growth. And to ensure that, all the companies need to consolidate and share their technologies so that safety is guaranteed from all sides. This is a difficult proposition to accept for most companies, as it would mean sacrificing competitive advantage. And yet, it’s a joint responsibility. Another mishap could be catastrophic to the technology as such.

Second, the government needs to record all information regarding autonomous technology and pass permits only based on the safety standards adhered to by the companies. Arizona is a favorite test region for all car-markers due to the lack of restrictions and bureaucratic procedures to get self-driving vehicles on the road. This lapse also played a part in yesterday’s accident.

Autonomous cars may turn out to be safer in the long run, once the most advanced vehicles are launched. But till then, it’s half-made and therefore unsafe to drive along with other vehicles. Before leaping out to take the competitive edge, auto manufacturers should remember this.

We can wait a little longer for the self-driving technology. But we can’t sacrifice safety.

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