Driverless Cars: Menace or Miracle?

By Kaitlin Liebling

The age of driverless cars is upon us. Like something out of a futuristic sci-fi novel, people will soon be able to hop into a car, sit back, and relax while it drives itself to their destination. Companies as varied as Tesla, Uber and Google are in a race to develop viable driverless cars first.

Waymo, owned by Google, began developing autonomous cars in 2009 and plans to introduce their cars to the Arizona public late this year. The company is planning to operate an Uber-like ride sharing system without a driver, a technique that will save the company millions of dollars on driver pay. It will also expose thousands of Arizonans to the novel experience of riding in a car that drives itself.

However, the new technology is not without controversy. In March, Elaine Herzberg, a 49-year-old woman, was struck and killed by one of Uber’s driverless vehicles as she was jaywalking across the street. According to police, phone records show that Uber’s safety driver was watching The Voice on her phone at the time of the crash. The driver denies this finding, and in an interview with the National Transportation Safety Board claimed “neither [of her phones] were in use until after the crash.”

Yet it seems Uber’s driverless technology was also to blame. In an email to The Guardian, David King, a professor at ASU and specialist in the field of modern tech, expressed dissatisfaction with Uber’s system in light of the incident. “This is exactly the type of situation that Lidar and radar are supposed to pick up,” he said. “This is a catastrophic failure that happened with Uber’s technology.”

In response to the controversy, Uber temporarily shut down its autonomous vehicle tests until late July and laid off its safety drivers in favor of better trained Mission Specialists. The NTSB is currently investigating the crash and released their preliminary report in May. While they were unable to identify probable cause at such an early stage, the preliminary report did find fault with the pedestrian’s jaywalking at night and the driver’s failure to “engage with the steering wheel” until less than a second before impact. The driverless car’s initial misclassification of Herzberg as first an “unidentified object,” and then as a vehicle, was also to blame.

In response to the crash, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said, “The tragic incident makes clear that autonomous vehicle technology has a long way to go before it is truly safe for the passengers, pedestrians, and drivers who share America’s roads… In our haste to enable innovation we cannot forget basic safety.”

Regulation of Driverless Cars

Blumenthal actually breaks from current government policy with this statement. In general, states left to regulate driverless car technology have adopted a hands-off approach. California, one of the strictest, requires a driver to be in the front seat of any self-driving vehicle. Yet according to The New York Times, most other states have no true restrictions, including in Arizona where Waymo is currently conducting its tests.

This apparent lack of oversight is somewhat deliberate on the government’s part. Instead of hindering the progress of the driverless cars with regulations, most states want to encourage its development and thus be ahead of the curve on the latest tech.

As an example, take Douglas Ducey, the governor of Arizona. In 2015, he released an executive order stating that Arizona would “undertake any necessary steps to support the testing and operation of self-driving vehicles on public roads within Arizona.” Such statements encouraged Waymo and other companies like it to operate and test in the state.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, run by the government, is also supportive of driverless cars. Their website states the numerous benefits of the technology and optimistically predicts fully autonomous safety features by 2025.

Benefits and Drawbacks

In fact, the NHTSA cites safety as the number one reason to adopt driverless car technology. In 2016, 37,491 people were killed in automobile crashes and 94 percent of those crashes were caused by human error. Car wrecks and automobile fatalities could be greatly reduced with the adoption of driverless cars because the cars are programmed to carefully follow safety laws and avoid risky driving maneuvers.

For supporters of autonomous cars, crashes such as the one involving Herzberg were an anomaly. One fatal crash in comparison to thousands with regular cars still saves lives, and as the technology continues to develop the cars will become advanced enough that such crashes no longer occur. The cars could also provide a means of transportation for those incapable of driving, such as the elderly or disabled.

Critics argue that adopting the technology will leave millions without a job, starting with Uber drivers and eventually affecting truck drivers. They say the driverless companies have not proven their technology is safe and are worried about the lack of regulation.

Whether good or bad, one thing remains clear: driverless cars have arrived. Barring the introduction of strict government laws, the technology will continue to develop and become more and more commonplace. A researcher at Forbes “conservatively” estimated the number of driverless cars on the road will be 10 million by 2020 and almost 25 percent of total cars by 2030. Thus, conversations surrounding the technology’s adoption and regulation will surely continue into the future.