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Despite deadly Uber crash, self-driving cars must remain on roads
Despite deadly Uber crash, keep testing autonomous vehicles on public roads
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Tempe police have released two angles of a fatal crash involving a self-driving Uber SUV and a pedestrian on March 18, 2018.
Something appears to have gone badly wrong in the traffic accident in which an Uber self-driving car killed a pedestrian in Arizona last week. We can hope there will not be other deaths, but this wasn’t the first time an autonomous vehicle is involved in an accident, and won’t be the last . Still, it shouldn’t derail the technology’s development.
The initial report by the Tempe police said the victim, a 49-year-old woman walking alongside her bicycle, suddenly stepped in front of the Volvo SUV in which Uber was testing its self-driving technology. The night was dark, the street was poorly lit and the woman crossed in the middle of a block, not at a crosswalk.
“It would have been difficult to avoid this collision,” whether a human or machine was in control, Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir told the San Francisco Chronicle.
That’s not so clear to some people well-acquainted with the development of autonomous vehicles. Video from cameras mounted on the vehicle raise questions about the vehicle and Uber’s test procedure.
The backup driver in the vehicle was looking down rather than ahead to watch for trouble. While even an attentive driver might not have seen the pedestrian, the autonomous vehicle’s radar and lidar sensors are independent of lighting conditions and should have, Navigant Research senior analyst Sam Abuelsamid said.
Federal inspectors from the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash. Uber put its test program on hold following the crash.
“This accident is concerning, and we need to get all the facts about what caused it,” Michigan Sen. Gary Peters said. “Congress must move quickly to enhance oversight of self-driving vehicles by updating federal safety rules and ensuring regulators have the right tools and resources to oversee the safe testing and deployment of these emerging technologies.” Peters and South Dakota Sen. John Thune have sponsored a bill to create national standards for autonomous vehicle testing.
A set of standards is badly needed as the systems become more common. As it stands today, an automaker can claim to have autonomous emergency braking whether its system only works at 5 mph in a parking lot or can apply 100% of braking force in a panic stop on the highway.
The Department of Transportation has designated 10 automated vehicle proving grounds around the country to test the systems, including the American Center for Mobility at the historic Willow Run site west of Detroit. That facility includes highway driving, a tunnel, intersections, overpasses and traffic circles.
“We are laser-focused on the safe testing and validation of automated vehicles,” said John Maddox, ACM president and CEO. “Controlled testing where variables and risks can be safely managed on a proving ground is critical.”
Uber’s test vehicles are very different from the handful semi-autonomous cars you can buy today. Vehicles like the Cadillac CT6 with Super Cruise and Nissan Rogue and Leaf with ProPilot Assist require much more human oversight than the fully autonomous test vehicles.
Super Cruise operates only on restricted-access highways, where there should be no pedestrians. It uses monitors to make sure the driver is paying attention and has bright lights and audio alerts to tell the driver if something’s wrong.
Nissan’s ProPilot Assist requires the driver to have a hand on the wheel at all times, as does Tesla’s Autopilot.
Systems like those, pedestrian detection and autonomous emergency braking are becoming more common every day. Ford just announced autonomous braking and pedestrian detection will be standard on the 2019 Fusion midsize sedan. Prices should start around $22,000. At the other end of the spectrum, Toyota plans to offer automatic steering to avoid pedestrians on top models of the $75,000-plus Lexus LS.
Within a few years, virtually every new vehicle will have many of those features.
That should make driving safer, but fully autonomous vehicles will be safer still. Even when a human is driving, the driver assist systems will take over to brake or swerve to avoid of reduce impacts.
To get to that point, though, we have to share the roads with the test vehicles developing those technologies today. Regulators and automakers must work together. Dedicated proving grounds like ACM will be vital, but you can’t do this without testing on public roads, and we need to accept there will be some failures. Not every incident should make national headlines.
More than 37,000 people died in accidents involving vehicles people were driving last year, an estimated 6,000 of them pedestrians. Autonomous vehicles won’t eliminate accidents and deaths, but they will eventually make us safer on the road than we’ve ever been before.
Contact Mark Phelan: [email protected] or 313-222-6731. Follow him on Twitter @mark_phelan.
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