It is sad and unfortunate, but the inevitable has finally happened; we’ve suffered our first death from an autonomous vehicle.
The Uber Autonomous Vehicle fatality in Tempe is odd, as there are several contributing factors:
- The pedestrian was crossing the street at night outside of a cross walk. Jaywalking, as it is commonly called, is against city ordinances in Tempe, AZ.
- The pedestrian evidently didn’t see the car’s lights, or hear the car approaching.
- The safety assistant in the vehicle, who was meant to help avoid such crashes by taking control of the car, was not paying attention at the time of the crash and apparently had a prior felony conviction (raising the question of how she was hired in the first place).
- The vehicle’s collision avoidance system failed somehow to either detect the individual or take the appropriate action upon detection.
These factors raise several immediate questions regarding who (or what) is to blame for the incident:
- Who’s at fault? The jaywalking pedestrian? The safety assistant for negligence? Uber for potential vehicle failures?
- If either the assistant or Uber bear the blame, does this rise to the level of a crime? Vehicular manslaughter for instance?
Technology Advancements and the Benefits They Bring Almost Always Have a Price
First, to be clear, technical advances very often come at peril to human life.
Advances in both flight and space travel have both resulted in several deaths over the last century – the manner of death being impossible before the advancement.
While per capita deaths associated with automobiles are lower today than they were for horse related transportation in 1900 , the fact remains that the introduction of the automobile increased fatalities for a number of years through at least 1930.
Power transmission to homes may be linked to leukemia in children. While the jury is out regarding whether smart phones cause brain cancer, the “selfie” phenomenon they’ve enabled has been implicated in some deaths .
Even seemingly harmless entertainment devices such as televisions have caused fatalities.
We Have a Lot to Gain by Moving Forward
While sad, and in this particular case completely avoidable (the pedestrian could have crossed at a cross walk, could have avoided the vehicle, and the safety assistant could have been paying attention), this should not halt the advancement of research in this area. Yes, we should pause briefly to understand and correct the cause.
But we also need to realize that the benefits to society are immense and cry for rapid progress and adoption:
- A likely overall reduction in vehicular accidents and fatalities as the technology progresses and gains adoption. Driver attention problems (texting, cell phones) go away.
- Lower insurance rates as overall vehicle related claims decline.
- An elimination of alcohol related driving crimes and accidents.
- A reduction in the overall cost of living for many Americans who need flexible transportation in metro areas, but struggle to afford a vehicle.
- A reduction in the cost of living for American families who may only need one car if it could return home for other duties, but must buy two because each car remains with its owner wherever he or she goes.
- A reduction in vehicle related pollution and its associated climate effects as vehicle ownership declines and affordable autonomous ride sharing increases.
- Fewer traffic delays as autonomous vehicles select better routes, lowering commute times.
- Less road congestion as fewer vehicles compete for the limited infrastructure.
- Lower infrastructure costs longer term, as less road maintenance is required and one day the need for street lights go away. Taxes similarly drop.
- Lower local taxes as the need for traffic related law enforcement declines over time.
Unfortunately Implementation and Adoption Will Likely Slow Down
While the benefits of autonomous vehicles are clear, Autonomous Vehicle (AV) deaths will provide fodder for special interest groups to slow down AV legalization:
- Several unions, including those related to livery services, will strive to keep their member base employed and either sue to stop implementation or fund political action committees to influence legislation biased against AVs.
- Because the secondary car market is likely to see a significant decline in demand (who needs a used car if one can get a ride service easily at lower overall cost?), car dealerships will fund PACs to similarly sway politicians.
- Automobile manufacturers who today see a near term opportunity with Autonomous Vehicles, may determine that vehicle sales overall in the new car industry could decline and join existing PACs
- Other unions and businesses reliant upon vehicle ownership for employment of some (or all) of their member base or for their very existence (car washes, gas stations, “Big Oil”, police departments, maintenance facilities, etc) may also join PACs.
While there are many societal benefits in adopting the AV, there are certain interest groups which have a lot to lose with their wide-scale adoption. These interest groups will almost certainly mobilize and look to stall progress and in so doing keep society from reaping the benefits.
Death associated with technical advancement is nothing new and while we should strive to limit it, we must expect it. While we stand to gain a great deal from autonomous vehicles, we must be wary of entrenched interests that may attempt to use events like this one to block their adoption.