Op-Ed by Managing Editor of the Kicker Blog A. R. Bunch
We at the Kicker, have waited a couple days to comment on this story because it’s important to acknowledge the loss of life before engaging in what will no doubt be a ruckus brawl of a debate regarding the fall out of the event. However, we’d be remiss if we didn’t respond to it at all.
Last Sunday, a 49-year-old Arizona woman was struck by one of Uber’s autonomous (self-driving) vehicles while pushing her bike across the street outside the crosswalk. The collision seems to have occurred at roughly the speed limit of the road, with no sign that the AV attempted to slow down.
The is a myriad of legal viewpoints on who should be held responsible. The owner of the vehicle? The person behind the wheel, though not driving the vehicle, Uber, the state of Arizona!? Seriously. Was this a workplace accident? Was it vehicular manslaughter? Without being a lawyer, we can’t answer those types of questions. But let’s talk about another question that seems relevant.
Who could have predicted such a tragedy? Frankly everyone. I don’t know that anyone didn’t expect it to happen at some point. Cars hit people. Here at the Kicker we’ve also warned that self-driving cars are further from reality than we’re being told for one big reason. Mindset!
There’s an inevitable transition happening in vehicles away from mechanical and toward technological. We’ve covered it in several posts. But we’ve hit a tipping point where manufacture and design is shifting away from the car industry and toward technology companies. The leaders of these different industries have radically different approaches to development and often for good reasons.
In the late 1960’s Ford leadership came to their designers with a unique and exciting challenge–design a new subcompact car that weighed less than 2,000 pounds and bring it to market in under two years, for less than $2,000.
The met that goal and the resulting Ford Pinto. burst into flames when struck from behind at low speeds. It didn’t need to. The issue was brought to the attention of decision-makers, but the suggested fix was a couple pound hunk of hard plastic that cost $11. It put the car over cost, and overweight. The controversy came when the public discovered that Ford had run a cost-benefit analysis to determine how many people would be injured or killed by not improving the design and decided it would be cheaper to settle lawsuits than to prevent them.
In other words, there was an acceptable number of people who could be killed or maimed if it let them meet their goals and profit margin. The resulting outcry tot Ford a valuable lesson–one which technology companies have yet to learn.
Ever buy a new computer and find it runs horribly? Ever find it buggy or insecure from hackers? Ever think, these people are releasing their beta version and letting us debug it for them? Well, that sort of thinking won’t be very compatible with the commuting public. Especially when they’re touting how much safer we’ll all be when their product is behind the wheel.
I’m going to make a prediction about how these new laws around AV’s are going to shake out. 100% of the fault for anything your car does will be blamed on you–the official operator of the vehicle. The only thing the law can hold accountable is the driver. That means insurance rates for people with AVs may be higher until actuaries determine if they are actually safer. It means, you can’t just sit back and watch TV while your car drives you to work, which could make the car less attractive to buyers and less attractive to companies like Apple who are jumping in with both feet because AVs are the next iPod.
If the sudden craving doesn’t create demand then the irrational exuberance driving us to rush AVs to market will slow and we can actually test these cars before they get on the road instead of just killing people and debugging later. So it’s a self-correcting process. However, it does mean two things–we were right that we’re more than 5 years away from self-driving cars AND no one is going to realize that until it kills someone.
This tragedy was avoidable. There is no acceptable number of people who can be injured or killed in the process of helping companies hit their financial goals. I hope that everyone involved in designing and testing AVs reflects hard on this tragedy, and I hope that the lawmakers of AZ consider their role in it.
Rest in Peace Elaine Herzberg
Until next time–this is A. R. Bunch hoping you stay safe on the roads.