Yesterday an Uber self-driving car hit and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona. First, a rant to the media: it doesn’t matter whether Ms Herzberg was homeless or not, or whether she was pushing a bicycle, or riding it, or riding a unicorn. The car, which reports suggest did not slow down, hit her, and she died. It is a tragedy.
The Volvo XC90 in question was in “autonomous mode” when it hit Ms Herzberg, with a safety driver at the wheel. Authorities have already said that Uber was “likely not be at fault” given the way the victim emerged from shadows onto the street.
Clearly this is a watershed moment for Uber and the self-driving industry. The company has pulled its autonomous vehicles from the streets of Phoenix’s metro area, of which Tempe is a constituent, Toronto, Pittsburgh and San Francisco. It has not released data of the crash but says it is cooperating with authorities.
That cooperation should now be the focus of governments and autonomous vehicles worldwide. It’s no secret that Silicon Valley has leaped ahead of regulators unaware on unable to place controls on its high-tech activity. Uber itself essentially acts as a global battering ram, pouncing on legislative gray areas before governments act.
Self-driving cars do not currently require any additional licenses. That is an oversight. The Self Drive Act, passed the House last fall, is a step in the right direction. Yesterday’s crash is evidence it must be enforceable as soon as possible.
It is tempting to ask the question, ‘How many non-autonomous cars killed pedestrians yesterday,’ to which the answer would be 15. But that would be falling into a colossal trap of whataboutism. Vehicles cause a huge and tragic number of deaths each year. But the dangers posed by autonomous vehicles come with the possibility to be tested and reduced before cars are even on the streets.
With that in mind, California’s decision to allow fully-driverless vehicles on its streets next month – without safety drivers – appears foolhardy. It must reconsider. And states must ensure they and companies like Uber have close relationships and the ability to share data, if future tragedies are to be prevented.
At a time when trust in tech companies seems to be reaching a nadir, the lack of regulation surrounding autonomous vehicles could be fatally blasé. It should not spell a hiatus for the technology. But eagerness to get driverless vehicles on the road must not come at a human cost.