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What Happens When Autonomous Vehicles Turn Deadly?

Consumers and auto execs alike were horrified by the news that a self-driving Uber vehicle had hit and killed a pedestrian. The incident prompted Uber to ground its fleet of self-driving cars while the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reviewed the accident to determine who was at fault.

Uber is only one part of the growing autonomous vehicle sector, but the accident sent shockwaves throughout the entire industry. It’s the kind of incident that could thwart plans for AV deployment, attract a new level of scrutiny from lawmakers, and erode consumer confidence in a vehicle’s ability to drive itself.

Many in the auto industry wouldn’t even respond to a request for comment, but Nicolas de Cremiers, head of marketing at Navya, shared his reaction to what happened last March.

“As with any sector, human error is a possibility,” said de Cremiers, whose company produces autonomous shuttles and cabs. “It is crucial that we, as suppliers of autonomous mobility solutions, come together with communities and municipalities to begin taking steps towards creating safety standards and comprehensive measures for the upcoming Autonomous Vehicle Era in smart cities.”

de Cremiers remained optimistic for the future of AVs, adding, “In working towards a more fluid and sustainable future, by improving traffic flow and reducing congestion in urban centers, we will ultimately upgrade the quality life while raising safety standards for a world in perpetual motion.”

As far as regulations are concerned, Danny Atsmon, CEO of Cognata, a startup specializing in AV simulations, said there needs to be some “common procedures” before these vehicles are publicly deployed.

“It’s not a bad idea to have some commonality and standards among the different AV providers,” said Atsmon. “I do believe that after this incident, there are high chances that it will lead to some regulations.”

Gil Dotan, CEO of Guardian Optical Technologies, said it is the industry’s responsibility to “make sure we learn the most and make our tech smarter and more robust.”

“This will push carmakers and tech providers to be more cautious and responsible,” said Dotan, whose company is developing sensing tech for inside the cabin. “This has precedents in other industries, like aviation and space travel, where unfortunate events have occurred. The last thing we should take out of this is to stop our efforts.”

Dotan is among those who see the greater good in what AVs could achieve by eventually reducing the number of fatal car accidents. Atsmon agrees, but he said the incident is a reminder that AVs “still have years of development and a long validation process before it can be released on the road.”

Where does this leave Uber, the company at the center of it all? Jeffrey Tumlin, principal at Nelson\Nygaard, a transportation planning consultancy, said the video released by the Tempe Police Department is “remarkably damning.”

“Yes, the victim crossed a high-speed road – in the dark, on a curve,” said Tumlin. “But all the tech on the vehicle did nothing to slow the car or alert the human observer. While I still believe that AV tech can result in huge safety benefits, whatever tech was out there on the roads should not have yet been cleared for human trials.”

About the author:

Louis Bedigian is an experienced journalist and contributor to various automotive trade publications. He is a dynamic writer, editor and communications specialist with expertise in the areas of journalism, promotional copy, PR, research and social networking.

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