Uber tragedy must not end autonomous vision


Steve Rogerson comments on the death of a pedestrian in the USA after being hit by a Uber car in autonomous mode

The news that a self-driving Uber car has killed a pedestrian in Arizona has shaken up the quest for autonomous vehicles with many advocating that this experiment be put on hold until the technology advances.

There have been calls to slow down the push until the technology has matured. Uber itself has suspended its self-driving tests, understandably, until it fully investigates the incident.

Other bodies want to take this further. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers, for example, put out a statement calling for a transition period.

“Engineers will need to create an environment where connected autonomous vehicles can operate safely with or without an operator during the transition period to a fully autonomous vehicle system,” said Jenifer Baxter, head of engineering at the IME. “This transition period could last for several decades.”

And Colin Barnden, principal analyst at Semicast Research, asked: “Please can we hit the brakes on this autonomous driving experiment until it has proper regulatory oversight?”

However, an initial report from the local police said the pedestrian “pushing a bicycle laden with plastic shopping bags…abruptly walked from a centre median into a lane of traffic and was struck by a self-driving Uber operating in autonomous mode”.

The big question therefore is whether a car driven by a human would have been able to stop in time. The laws of physics still apply when a car is in autonomous mode and if someone steps in front of a car within its braking distance, then the car will not be able to stop in time, whether driven by a computer or human.

What does change with an autonomous car is that the initial reactions are quicker than a human and the brakes can be applied sooner.

Autonomous vehicles hold the promise of drastically reducing the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads. While the death of the pedestrian in this case is a tragedy, the real tragedy would be if this resulted in the slowing of the autonomous programme and a failure to save thousands upon thousands of lives every year as a result.

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Captain America (not verified) on Fri, 23/03/2018 - 14:57

Ok pedestrian may be to blame in this case. Did the car actually tried to break as soon as is detected the pedestrian in front? Did it detect it in the first place?  Did it try an evasion maneuver? I think a lot of companies are jumping on the autonomous vehicle wagon just because it's a promise of profitability, not because they care about safety

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