Welcome again to The Driverless Commute, presented by the global law firm Dentons, a weekly digest clocking the most important technical, legal and regulatory developments shaping the path to autonomy.
1. Situational awareness
Footage released this week by the Tempe, AZ, police department shows a negligent contingency driver distracted in the critical moments before an Uber prototype operating in autonomous mode fatally struck a pedestrian in the dark hours of Sunday evening.
- A Volvo XC90 SUV was operating in autonomous mode on a Sunday evening when it fatally struck a 49-year-old crossing a street with her bicycle in Arizona.
- The woman was not in a designated pedestrian crossing.
- Only days prior, the state’s governor, Republican Doug Ducey, signed an executive order abandoning requirements for contingency drivers in experimental autonomous vehicles. He signed his first executive order aimed at luring driverless test programs to the state three years ago, saying the state had open arms and wide roads.
- Despite this easing of rules, there was a safety fallback driver present in the car at the time of the collision.
- Uber has halted its autonomous program pending investigation.
The incident, which represents in some ways an acute indictment of the state of vehicle automation, will cast a long shadow over the as-yet-largely unregulated driverless landscape.
And we warned you it would.
In January, we wrote in this space: “The evolutionary leap towards artificial intelligence is entering its most dangerous phase, hurtling into a marketing-induced bedlam in which society has assumed broad misconceptions about the computing powers of contemporary driverless cars. Now, it’s partly a function of aggressive branding campaigns—you could be forgiven for thinking a function branded as autopilot would, well, automatically pilot your craft—but mostly it’s borne of stupidity.”
Cortica, an AI firm, ran simulations from the Arizona crash on its system and found the car’s various LiDAR arrays and sensors, which are impervious to darkness, should have detected the pedestrian 0.9 seconds before impact, about 50 feet shy of collision, leaving enough time for a computer to appropriately react.
Experts with whom we’ve consulted agree that that the car should have identified the pedestrian, and forensic crash probes by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board will determine why it didn’t.
But don’t forget that the car was operating with the presence of a human safety driver for a reason. For this exact reason.
The way we see it:
- The term “autonomous vehicle” is a bit of a misnomer, at least given the current state of the technology. Prototypes in operation across the United States fall short, in both real and perceived terms, of true autonomy. But the only way to shorten the delta between proto-autonomy (as it exists today) and full autonomy (as its been promised) is to continue real road tests.
- Public surveys already indicate significant trepidation about the presence of autonomous vehicles on public roads, and the Tempe incident will only heighten that fear.
- Car makers and technology firms must bear the burden of proof. Unless and until they meet that critical threshold, states should require the presence of qualified, engaged contingency drivers or teleoperation capacities.
Search giant Baidu won its first permit this week from regulators to begin formal public testing of autonomous vehicles in China’s bustling capital city.
Beijing’s roads are a blur of flesh and metal—a place where pedestrians, cyclists and motorists fiercely jostle for space and speed—and will present an exceptional challenge for autonomous tech.
Already, the Tempe incident is stirring thought leaders around the world to ask whether the rapid pace of driverless experimentation has come at the expense of public safety. Like this, published today by the editorial board of the English-language South China Morning Post: “The death of a female pedestrian hit by a self-driving car … is a wake-up call that driverless technology may be getting ahead of itself.”
The fallout from the Arizona crash isn’t yet apparent, but the episode highlights the danger to the global autonomy sector in this delicate testing phase. Remember: The rules of the road still apply. Speeding too fast could irreversibly stall deployment.
3. Don’t be the last to know!
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