Driverless Commute – March 30

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. Fallout

The crash heard ‘round the world continues to cause troubles for Uber, whose autonomous vehicle project suffered a terrible blow when one of its vehicles fatally struck a pedestrian while crossing a street in Arizona.

  • Paying out to the family: The ride-hailing giant reached an undisclosed settlement this week with the decedent’s family, whose attorney said Thursday, “the matter has been resolved.” The settlement means Uber won’t have to endure a lengthy and complex case—not to mention the many problems discovery might have presented—though state Freedom of Information Act requests by local press may still generate  some uncomfortable headlines in the coming weeks for both the company and the state’s governor.
  • Isolation: Suppliers and rivals alike are moving to put daylight between themselves and Uber in the wake of the crash. Chipmaker Nvidia sought to clarify that Uber uses only its standard graphics processing unit and not its self-driving platform, while Velodyne, which engineers one of the lidar arrays used by Uber’s cars, noted that its product was capable of detecting the pedestrian. Meanwhile, Waymo chief executive John Krafcik said the company’s proprietary self-driving minivans would have avoided the accident.
  • Ill-timed departures: One of the founders of Otto, which Uber famously acquired (and for which it weathered a costly trade secrets onslaught from Waymo), left the ride-hailing firm this week. Lior Ron, a one-time Google executive who left to cofound autonomous-trucking startup Otto (now Uber Freight), was a fixture in Waymo’s intellectual property claims against Uber. An Uber spokesman said the departure was not related to the Tempe, AZ, crash, but did not elaborate when probed by the New York Times.
  • Sunset in the Golden State: After suspending its test programs across the country, Uber said this week it would not reapply for a special self-driving permit from California regulators, who earlier this month waved requirements for contingency drivers. Despite the state’s reputation as one of the world’s preeminent testing jurisdictions, Uber had just 29 vehicles permitted for operation there.
  • Data for doubters: The Arizona incident has emboldened critics of autonomous vehicles, with consumer safety advocates writing a series of op-ed pieces in newspapers across the country (including the Washington, DC, political press) urging regulators and lawmakers to slow-walk driverless rules. In The Hill, we saw, “Self-driving Uber death should be a safety wake-up call for Congress,” while Psychology Today offered this gem: “Should we ban autonomous vehicles?.” A contributor to The Seattle Times was especially pointed: “We can’t trust the autonomous-car industry to self-regulate.

2. Counterpoint

More than 100 Americans die each and every day as a consequence of automobile crashes.

Of those, some 90 percent are caused, at least in part, by human error. Although we have less data on driverless car accidents, humans have been similarly responsible for the majority of crashes of autonomous vehicles.

Consider California, where there were only 34 reported accidents involving a driverless vehicle between January 2014 and August of last year. Most, according to a analysis last year by Axios, were caused by human-driven vehicles running red lights, driving too fast or too slow, or rear-ending the AV.

Automotive autonomy has been pitched to the public on the (almost)singular premise that it will save millions of lives over the long term. The tragic (and, we hasten to note, isolated) incident in Arizona doesn’t mean it won’t.

While you might regard the proposition as a slightly indelicate one to make now, only days after a woman’s gruesome death, it’s worth noting that this isolated incident, however unfortunate, doesn’t make the argument any less valid.

3. From soccer mom-mobile to midlife-crisis car

Known for its distinctive Chrysler minivans, Waymo said Tuesday it had purchased a dizzying 20,000 electric, self-driving Jaguar sport utility vehicles. The new fleet is so massive, the company said in a New York press conference, that the sporty Jags would be capable of completing a million trips each day in 2020.

One million trips. Each day. Even if that number is inflated with a bit of hopeful braggadocio, it’s still a staggering figure.

(Lest you’re worried the minivans will disappear, the Alphabet spinoff earlier this year bought thousands more of those)

4. Blue lights in the rear view

One of General Motor’s self-driving cars was cited this week by San Francisco law enforcement after allegedly driving too close to a pedestrian.

Cruise, GM’s self-driving unit, sharply denied the charge, and offered data showing that the pedestrian was nearly 11 feet away from the car as it cleared the intersection.

In a statement, the company said: “Safety is our priority in testing our self-driving vehicles. California law requires the vehicle to yield the right of way to pedestrians, allowing them to proceed undisturbed and unhurried without a fear of interference with their safe passage through an intersection. Our data indicates that’s what happened hear.”

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Eric Tanenblatt

About Eric Tanenblatt

Eric Tanenblatt is the Global Chair of Public Policy and Regulation of Dentons, the world's largest law firm. He also leads the firm's US Public Policy Practice, leveraging his three decades of experience at the very highest levels of the federal and state governments.

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James Richardson

About James Richardson

James Richardson is a strategic communications counselor with 15 years’ experience advising presidential candidates, Global Fortune 500 executives, national nonprofits, and sovereign governments on strategic communications and reputation management. He helps lead Dentons’ 3D Global Affairs practice.

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