Last night saw the second fatality on the roads involving an autonomous vehicle, the first since an incident with a self-driving Tesla in 2016. While not much is known about the cause of the accident, it seems as though a pedestrian was struck in Tempe, Arizona. A driver was present in the car. Uber has since suspended testing in several American cities.
"If anything, this proves that self-driving technology is still very much in the experimental phase," says Jeff Osborne, Head of Gumtree Auto. "Bear in mind autonomous driving is less than a decade old. Laws, safety standards and measures are still being written – essentially we're playing catch-up with the technology."
Some see this as a dangerous gamble, particularly since certain countries or individual states (like Arizona) adopt a lenient approach to testing in order to lure profitable tech companies.
Osborne says that while the technology isn't fool proof, most accidents occur due to human error. "The promise that is being touted with these cars is that they will remove human error. 4,500 lives are lost on South African roads every year. If we can even halve the amount of accidents on our roads, it will make a huge difference to road safety."
Osborne states that the biggest problem with autonomous cars is preparing for every eventuality. "Roads and the people and animals that use them are not predictable, nor are weather conditions. In the case of the Tesla that crashed, the car's cameras failed to distinguish the white side of a turning tractor-trailer from a brightly lit sky and did not brake appropriately. We also have to consider the impact of blending driverless and driver-led cars together – the first ever recorded accident by a driverless car was caused by another vehicle (and human error). Creating a car that can identify potential hazards – including potholes, dogs running into the road, a child chasing a ball, a loosened load on the back of a truck – is going to take time to master."
It is important not to dissuade automakers from investing in driverless tech, says Osborne. "Just like the first “horseless carriages” required time to perfect, and governments and industry bodies required time to develop road safety and vehicle safety laws, self-driving cars are in their infancy and will require time to become perfectly autonomous."