bennecke uber phoenix fatality self-driving autonomous

Is the United States Ready for Autonomous Vehicles?

Last week, an Uber car struck and killed a pedestrian walking across the street in Phoenix, AZ. With a computer at the controls and a convicted felon acting as a chaperone for the computer, the LIDAR (light radar) system failed to detect the moving object and take corrective action.

Next month (April 2018), California is expected to start issuing permits for remote controlled vehicles to roam public streets. Dozens of large, multi-billion corporations will likely jump on the band wagon.

Are we ready for this? As much as I’d like to see our country raking in the benefits, unfortunately I don’t think we’re there yet.

The temptation to test and implement self-driving cars (a.k.a. autonomous vehicles, or AV’s) is substantial. AV’s have the potential to eliminate traffic congestion, which causes $160 billion per year in negative economic impact. AV’s can also eliminate as much as 90% of the 30,000 to 40,000 vehicle-related fatalities that happen every year. Those are some pretty big carrots to justify moving forward at all costs. But without a comprehensive plan — a bureaucratic-free strategy — to properly implement this new tech, there’s risk that the whole endeavor might fall apart. Failure would really suck.

In order to properly take advantage of the looming AV revolution, the plan would need to come from the federal government. Not the states because it’s too simple to drive an AV across state lines. Not private industry either because although the pursuit of the almighty dollar and a healthy bottom line are commendable, we can’t afford to use US citizens as guinea pigs.

Take the Arizona fatality for example. Who’s at fault from a legal standpoint? Sure, the pedestrian was probably homeless and inebriated, but those potential facts are irrelevant, as is the likely fact that a human driver would not have been able to avoid the collision anyway. What about the felon who was babysitting the computer driver? Her background is also irrelevant. Is Uber responsible? They are the owner of the vehicle and since the vehicle killed the woman, it seems like a logical conclusion. But one thing I’ve learned being in business for almost three decades is very few cases in the legal arena are cut and dry.

I don’t have all the answers and neither do most attorneys I’ve spoken with. The point here is we need to have this discussion before we allow AV’s on the roads. In addition to legal ramifications, we’ll need to discuss and iron out the many different social, psychological, financial, economic and technical impacts.

We can do everything in our power to prevent the AV’s from killing people, but without a plan in place, with a solid legal foundation to build from, more deaths are likely to occur. And that’s unfortunate.

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