Any collision or accident involving a self-driving car is always news, but in the case of the Uber self-driving car in Tempe, Arizona, involved in a collision, it wasn’t even the Uber car’s fault.
The accident involving the self-driving car from Uber came via Twitter, where Fresco News (@fresconews) had posted a photo with the car lying on its side after the collision. The other car was pictured in the shot as well, with windows smashed and the body dented.
BREAKING: Self-driving Uber vehicle on it’s side after a collision in Tempe, AZ.
— Fresco News (@fresconews) March 25, 2017
Accidents like this happen all the time, but Uber has reacted swiftly to stop all autonomous vehicle testing in Arizona, and has even suspended its Pittsburgh operations pending an investigation into what actually caused the crash.
Several media sites have covered the incident, but there’s more to this than meets the eye.
One of the abilities of a self-driving car is to be able to negotiate through moving traffic and handle myriad other road and traffic conditions, but a key component is to be able to anticipate the movement of other vehicles. Someone cutting a red light or pulling ahead of you and suddenly hitting the brakes is not something even an experienced human driver can always avoid, but we tend to expect that from a self-driving car. Why else would an accident without casualty make the news, like the Uber incident did?
And that’s one of the challenges faced by self-driving car technology. It might be not be a regulatory challenge in terms of getting the car certified to operate on public roads, but it’s a challenge from the perspective of reassuring the passengers that they’re safe at all times.
Accidents can happen no matter whether the world’s best driver is at the wheel or a highly advanced artificial intelligence entity is in control. And that’s something no level of autonomy will be able to prevent.
On the positive side, however, once self-driving cars are the norm, we won’t have cars running lights, overspeeding and generally being jerks on the road. But that future reality is going to be pushed further and further down the road if a small incident like this can make a bold company like Uber stop its testing in the state where the accident happened, and halt its autonomous fleet elsewhere.
Granted, Uber is riddled with controversy at the moment: claims of running a sexist workplace, CEO Kalanick’s tirade against an Uber driver, the ouster from California as far as autonomous vehicle testing is concerned and the matter of the legal dispute brought to bear by Alphabet’s Waymo.
Nevertheless, there’s no apparent reason why the company should stop its self-driving car testing after the accident, especially when it has already been established by a Tempe law enforcement officer that it was the other car’s fault.
We’re getting close to fully autonomous cars, and within five years we expect most of the states to allow self-driving cars to be deployed on public roads. We cannot afford incidents like the one in Tempe to put a speedbreaker in the path of progress. What we need now, in our opinion, is more aggressive testing and shorter timelines to the final goal.
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