Teething Problems with Self-Driving Technology

In the past few months there have been a number of misfortunes for autonomous vehicle (AV) development.  Recently Road Rules detailed the crash on March 18th in Tempe, Arizona, in which an Uber car driving in autonomous mode killed a pedestrian.  On March 23rd in Mountain View, California, a Tesla Model X SUV crashed into a freeway barrier killing Apple engineer Walter Huang, 38.  Reports now suggest the Tesla was on Autopilot and, according to a Tesla blog post, “its vehicle logs show the driver took no action to stop the car from crashing into a concrete lane divider.” The force of the crash demolished the front of the vehicle and led to a vehicle fire, although not in the immediate aftermath.

Tesla reportedly addressed the tragedy, saying “The reason this crash was so severe is because the crash attenuator, a highway safety barrier which is designed to reduce the impact into a concrete lane divider, had been crushed in a prior accident without being replaced.”  Reports also add that Tesla defended its Autopilot system saying that while it doesn’t prevent all accidents, “it makes them less likely to occur than vehicles without it.”

On Monday March 26th, in San Francisco, an AV failed to stop for a woman in a crosswalk, resulting in a ticket from a motorcycle officer who witnessed the infraction.  San Francisco Police Department spokesperson Officer Giselle Linnane was quoted as saying the car “cut the pedestrian off.”  Reports clarify that while the ticketing officer believed the car was in self-driving mode, the ‘driver’ was still responsible, hence the ticket. The AV in question was developed by Cruise Automation, recently acquired by General Motors. Cruise was quoted saying “neither the car nor the person inside broke any laws” citing its own data showing that “the car was 10.8 feet away from the pedestrian during the incident. … California law requires the vehicle to yield the right of way to pedestrians, allowing them to proceed undisturbed and unhurried without fear of interference of their safe passage through an intersection,” the statement continued. “Our data indicates that’s what happened here.”

The person in the crosswalk incident was uninjured.  The San Francisco Police commented that they don’t “look at or work with that data. … It’s whatever the officer observed at the scene and from his observation, there was a violation.”

Car company executives at the recent New York International Auto show indicated their awareness of the knife-edge they are on: aiming for first mover advantage for the AVs they are currently developing but without risking their brands’ reputations for safety and reliability.  Jack Hollis, group vice-president of US sales for Toyota, for example, was quoted as saying “Some competitors, … [are] trying to race to be the first one to show autonomous driving. … What’s important is to be able to give the customer 100 per cent confidence.”  “Toyota” he said, “will take its cues from consumers.”

According to an AAA survey taken prior to March, sixty-three per cent of Americans said they’d be afraid to ride in a fully self-driving car.”  Understandable!

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