Uber self-driving car crash reveals the next big hurdle for automated driving

Source: AP
Source: AP

Uber shut down its pilot program featuring self-driving cars Saturday after a test vehicle crashed Friday evening in Tempe, Arizona. At the time of the accident, the driverless car had two "safety drivers" in the front of the Volvo and the vehicle was in self-driving mode, Reuters reported. No serious injuries have been reported.

According to Josie Montenegro, a spokeswoman for the Tempe Police Department, the accident took place after a driver of a different vehicle was making a turn and "failed to yield" to Uber's autonomous car. This resulted in the driverless vehicle to roll onto its side.

The Uber program has been suspended indefinitely in Pittsburgh and San Francisco as well until more information about Friday's accident comes out. "We are continuing to look into this incident," an Uber spokeswoman told Reuters in an email.

Uber launched the pilot program in Pittsburgh in September. The company acknowledged that self-driving cars, which it claims would reduce traffic accidents in the nation, still "require human intervention in many conditions, including bad weather."

So where does Uber go from here?

Uber's self-driving cars need to account for idiot humans on the road

A self-driving Uber Volvo
Source: 
Gene J. Puskar/AP

In the United States, road traffic accidents are a leading cause of death. According to data from the National Safety Council, or NSC, 40,000 lives were claimed in motor vehicles crashes last year — this is a 6% increase from 2015 and a 14% rise from 2014. The financial cost of accident-related deaths, injuries and property damage in 2016 comes to $432.5 billion, the NSC reported.

In this context, the case for autonomous driving is clear. Self-driving cars have the potential to reduce accidents, save lives and prevent financial loss. Some reports show even estimate driverless cars could reduce road accident-related deaths by 90%, though the counter-case has been made that a comparison is near-impossible due to a lack of data. 

But Friday's accident spotlights a big problem self-driving vehicles are guaranteed to face: human drivers and their erratic behavior.

While it's easy to point a finger at the technology behind self-driving cars and anticipate mishaps and glitches, another obstacle will likely come from human-operated vehicles. When autonomous vehicles become mainstream, there's bound to be a period of transition time when streets will be occupied by both driverless and human-controlled cars. No matter how accident-proof an autonomous vehicle is, it doesn't stop a real-life driver — you know, the ones responsible for accidents now — from making an error.

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