Mar 20, 2018

Uber crash could put brakes on self-driving cars

Uber app. Photo: Pau Barrena / AFP via Getty Images

It's finally happened. A self-driving car has hit and killed a pedestrian, a scenario everyone in and out of the industry knew would eventually happen. Uber, which operated the car in question, has put on hold its self-driving car effort in three cities and the NTSB is investigating.

So now what? This leads to a multitude of questions that need answers — plus the warning that there are two big mistakes that we could make as a society in dealing with self-driving cars.

Watch out for these two potential mistakes:

  • The first would be not to recognize that giving the keys to a machine is a big deal and to think we can let the industry proceed without any guidelines or regulations.
  • The second, and in my opinion more dangerous, would be to dramatically slow development of self-driving car technology just because it isn't yet 100 percent perfect. Human drivers cars kill lots of people.

The real challenge, then, is to set some sort of safety standard for determining when the technology is "good enough." How much more should we demand of autonomous vehicles — should they be twice as good as human drivers, 10x better, 100x?

First, let's determine how safe are self-driving cars. Right now, it's hard to say since so few self-driving cars are on the road. Zendrive CEO Jonathan Matus told Axios:

"If human drivers tend to see a fatal crash every 100 million miles driven, then total of miles driven by all AV training efforts, combined to date (estimated less than 10-20 million) is still pretty low to even begin to get a sense for how safe they are relative to humans."
"A fatality so early certainly is a sad and a bad sign, but the total miles driven are so low and these are such rare events  that tough to get a sense of how safe or unsafe the tech is compared to humans."

Yellow light: There were lots of calls on Monday to slow down, including from the head of the well-regarded self-driving car lab at Carnegie Mellon. Opposition could kill an already stalled bill in Congress that would have allowed testing of self-driving cars to proceed with minimal oversight from the NHTSA.

  • "This crash should be a clear wake-up call for Congress to halt this flawed legislation and add desperately-needed minimum performance requirements and safety standards," said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
  • "The death of this pedestrian simply is a red flag, a sign that we should slow down and make sure that safety is given priority," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told reporters on Monday. Asked whether it would change the likelihood of a floor vote "It should change the calculus, it should change the dynamic to make people more aware of how risky these vehicles potentially are. They are extraordinarily dangerous at this point. Moving them to the roads hastily or recklessly could be the consequence of this bill."

Worth remembering: Human-driven cars kill more than 30,000 people each year and humans are also responsible for most crashes that involve self-driving cars.

Who pays? And then, of course, in our litigious society there is also the question of who is liable.

  • There are a few options, but it seems like the wisest might be to make the creators of the self-driving car technology liable (barring some type of operator negligence) — that way they have a financial incentive to make the safest possible machines.
  • It's another variant of this sci-fi question: Who do you hold responsible when well-intentioned AI goes bad.

Go deeper

Instacart workers set to strike during heart of coronavirus crisis

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Some Instacart workers plan to go on strike today, arguing that the grocery delivery unicorn's recent increases in pay and safety equipment are insufficient.

Why it matters: Instacart has become a lifeline for many Americans either unable or unwilling to leave their homes, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 10:30 a.m. ET: 741,030 — Total deaths: 35,097 — Total recoveries: 156,838.
  2. U.S.: Leads the world in cases. Total confirmed cases as of 10:30 a.m. ET: 143,527 — Total deaths: 2,572 — Total recoveries: 4,865.
  3. Federal government latest: The White House will extend its social distancing guidelines until April 30.
  4. Trump latest: The president brushed aside allegations that China is spreading misinformation about the origin of the coronavirus on "Fox & Friends."
  5. Public health updates: Hospital ship the USNS Comfort arrives in Manhattan — White House COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said the 100,000 to 200,000 U.S. coronavirus death toll estimate is based on the presumption that citizens follow social-distancing guidelines "almost perfectly."
  6. World updates: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will self-isolate after an aide tested positive for coronavirus.
  7. What should I do? Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.

Alaska becomes latest state to issue coronavirus stay-at-home order

Data: Axios reporting; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

All Alaskans in the state are under a mandate to "remain at their place of residence and practice social distancing" except for those engaged in essential services, including health care and government functions.

The big picture: This is the latest state to announce policies to enforce social distancing. More than 1.5 billion people worldwide were asked to stay home Monday.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 1 hour ago - Health