On Monday, an Arizona woman lost her life after being struck by one of Uber’s self-driving cars, reports The Hill. The death has raised many questions and controversies regarding Uber, autonomous vehicles, and the regulation and oversight of this rapidly expanding industry.
Shortly after news of the woman’s death made national news, Uber released the following statement:
“Our hearts go out to the victim’s family. We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident.”
Additionally, Uber announced their decision to immediately cease testing operations of self-driving cars in Arizona, Pennsylvania, California, and Toronto. However, some believe that halting the current string of test runs is not enough. Privacy and Technology Project Director for the non-profit Consumer Watchdog, John M. Simpson, has called for a moratorium on all self-driving car testing on public roads nationwide. The non-profit believes that the self-driving car industry is broadly lacking the proper regulation needed to ensure the safety of cyclists and pedestrians as more autonomous vehicles are tested.
Consumer Watchdog’s reservations seem minimal next to groups like New York’s Upstate Transportation Association, which as reported by Fortune in January, sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo requesting a ban on self-driving cars for at least 50 years. The UTA cites potential lost jobs and associated economic concerns as reasons to protect driving jobs ranging from taxis to transport trucks, arguing that allowing ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft to operate freely will inevitably lead to a massive job loss in the near term.
While the concerns for public safety and regulations governing the testing of autonomous vehicles are surely justified, broad bans on testing and guaranteed protections for driving jobs seem far less reasonable.
The incident serves as a poignant reminder of the persistent fears that are all to easy to conjure on the subject of artificial intelligence and autonomous systems. The stories circulating earlier this month involving Amazon Alexa devices laughing at random moments is just one example of how we are inevitably embracing smart technology while simultaneously feeling uneasy about its presence in our lives at the first sign of trouble.
However, unlike the privacy concerns involved with products like Google Home and Alexa, this tragic incident involving Uber’s self-driving car is arguably one blight on a technology that has the potential to permanently minimize the number of all-to-frequent deaths involving vehicles as a result of human error. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were over 35,000 fatalities resulting from motor vehicle crashes in 2015. It is hard to believe that technology specifically addressing the many problems causing these fatalities, from distracted to impaired driving, would not substantially reduce these numbers once deemed road-ready.
As clear as the need is to make sure proper regulation is in place to govern the testing of autonomous vehicles, it would be a grave ethical miscalculation to determine from this accident that we as a society do not need self-driving cars.
Consider that in 2016 there were 962 traffic fatalities in the state of Arizona where this incident took place. This means that currently there are on average almost three deaths per day in Arizona involving motor vehicles, over half of which themselves are statistically likely to be caused by alcohol-impaired driving and speeding. This self-driving car death is certainly a tragedy, but it is far less senseless than the number of currently accepted fatalities that happen year after year. The disproportionate outpouring of animus towards Uber makes even less sense when you consider that the number of traffic fatalities in the U.S. in 2016 almost perfectly parallels the number of gun deaths. Whatever your views on the gun debate, surely if that issue is one that warrants national attention, our forays into a technology that could prevent a near equal amount of deaths should be of the utmost importance.
The National Transportation Safety Board has announced their decision to formally and officially investigate the circumstance and other factors which contributed to the fatal, self-driving Uber accident. There is a legitimate “gold-rush” aspect to the development of the technology that has seen companies like Uber desperately trying to be first to market with a viable product. That obviously cannot be put ahead of the public’s safety. If anything, this should serve as a wake-up call to companies in the race to develop the technology: be careful, when it comes to artificial intelligence, public opinion is a fickle thing.