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Opinion: The Future of Driverless in the Wake of Uber’s Tragic Accident

Typically we feature a review on Tuesdays. This will resume next week due to the tragic accident in Tempe this week.

First off, we want to send our sincerest condolences to the family and friends of Elaine Herzberg. Elaine was crossing a street in Tempe, Arizona on Sunday night when she was struck and killed by an Uber which was engaged in autonomous mode. 

We do not know all of the details of this accident yet. Over the coming days you will see many articles and stories on it. Regardless of the circumstances, no one should be killed while crossing a street. This is a tragedy to lose someone not yet even 50 years old.  

The NTSB is now evaluating the accident and surely consequences will follow. Our hope is that this situation is looked at with perspective and all factors are considered when determining the proper action to take.  

In 2017, the National Safety Council estimated that automobile fatalities in the United States surpassed 40,000 for the second consecutive year. That is close to 110 deaths per day!  This number has risen since 2015. There are a number of factors that are often pointed at but the biggest culprit in the rise has been distracted driving.  We all see people daily looking at their phones or doing other things while driving. 

This is the first death caused by a autonomous vehicle since 2016 when a Tesla driver engaged in Autopilot struck a tractor trailer in Florida. This is the first death attributed to Uber's self-driving vehicle. Due to Uber's reputation when it comes to how they deal with laws and regulation, there will be a public outcry to place harsh restrictions on Uber when it comes to self-driving vehicles. These regulations will not only impact Uber, but all other companies attempting to pilot autonomous vehicles.

This is not to say that no action should be taken to avoid a similar situation. Uber has halted all autonomous activity and rightly so. They need to take a critical look at what occurred and place resources to ensuring it does not happen again.  

Just a few weeks ago on March 1, 2018, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed an executive order creating rules for autonomous vehicles. A spokesman for the Governor said that a company that operates a self driving vehicle would be held responsible, possibly even criminally responsible, if it negligently killed someone.  

It is too early to determine the liability of Uber, the back-up operator, or any Uber employee at this point. Our hope though that when evaluating the proper action to take in this scenario, regulators remember that the U.S. facing a national crisis when it comes to vehicle deaths. This accident will consume the news cycle for a long time, but remember each day that is passing, another 110 people will die each day in the U.S. due not to self-driving vehicles, but due to humans who make mistakes. Mistakes that take many, many lives each day. 

The path to get to an autonomous vehicle is not an easy one. Uber, as well as Tesla and Waymo and others, are facing a monumental task of building a vehicle that not only drives itself better than a human, but is nearly flawless in it's execution. Elaine's death is a tragedy that needs to be dealt with an action taken to avoid another. But that action should be determined by looking at the entirety of the situation, and not just taking action based on headlines or based on Uber's reputation. Acting too severely in this situation does far more harm than good when we look at the whole of this crisis we are facing when it comes to vehicle fatalities. 

Image credit: Uber


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