To put the accident into context, in 2017, almost 40,000 American lives were lost on U.S. roadways, and 6,000 pedestrians were killed by human drivers.
The horrific tragedy in Arizona involving a self-driving vehicle is a sobering reminder about ongoing general safety concerns on American roadways and the promise—and current limitations—of autonomous technology. An Uber self-driving car hit a woman in Tempe when she was walking across the street, and the company is currently halting its testing across the country. It is important that industry and regulators use the investigation from the tragedy to learn valuable lessons and utilize every tool available, including autonomous technology, to reduce fatalities on the road.
To put the accident into context, in 2017, almost 40,000 American lives were lost on U.S. roadways, and 6,000 pedestrians were killed by human drivers last year.
“As an organization, we are saddened by this terrible tragedy,” said Mark Rosenker, former Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and head of SAFE’s Commission on Autonomous Vehicle Testing and Safety. “In context, 6,000 pedestrians were killed last year in roadway accidents by human drivers, and as fully autonomous vehicles see deployment on public roads, we stand by our belief that driverless cars will save lives, and our recommendation that companies deploy automated vehicles once confident that they are as safe or safer than the average human driver.”
SAFE President and CEO Robbie Diamond added, “Roadway fatalities killed 40,000 people last year—all avenues to address this public safety crisis should be pursued, and the responsible deployment of autonomous vehicle technology must be part of that strategy. As federal investigations shed light on the factors that led to this incident, policymakers must work towards a clear national framework to enable the prudent testing and development of this technology in a manner that will save lives as soon as possible.”
In January 2017, the Commission on Autonomous Vehicle Testing and Safety—a committed group of former public officials and safety experts bringing decades of experience to safe, expeditious AV deployment—released a series of best-practice recommendations to foster increased industry-regulator collaboration to ultimately improve public confidence in AVs.
These recommendations include:
- The Commission recommends that AV providers move to on-road testing and deployment only once confident that the vehicle’s performance is at least as safe as the average human driver, accounting for backup drivers, speed restrictions, geofencing and other safety measures.
- The Commission encourages AV providers to create safety milestones for AV development. The Commission further encourages public disclosure of achieved milestones and accompanying validation.
- The Commission encourages developers to deploy redundant layers of technology to increase safety beyond any minimum required standard.
- The Commission encourages developers to clearly define and effectively communicate autonomous features, including their limitations.
- The Commission encourages AV providers to formally collaborate through a technical data consortium to accelerate AV learning and safety through shared, anonymized information.
- The Commission recommends that industry formulate objective, practical, quantitative metrics for measuring AV safety.
NHTSA will now investigate the Arizona accident, and agency’s results will be scrutinized closely to determine responsibility. Critics of autonomy will likely use the accident to argue that this emerging technology is too dangerous, but the incident reflects the need for both prudence on the part of AV developers, and also the need for continued public testing to perfect the technology. As self-driving technology progresses, it will advance the safety of human-driven vehicles, too, with the increased use of features such as auto-emergency braking and collision avoidance helping to reduce the number of accidents and save lives.
Automakers, tech companies, and regulators need to educate the public about the safety crisis on American roads and the value of AV technology as an instrument to mitigate this problem.
Given the massive safety benefits society will eventually see from autonomous technology, the Arizona accident underscores the necessity of creating a clear national policy framework and established safety benchmarks so that this incident and possible similar ones in the future do not read to regulatory backlashes that block AV deployment. Autonomous technology will not solve all of our dangers on American roadways, but it is necessary that automakers, tech companies, and regulators educate the public about the safety crisis on American roads and the value of AV technology as an instrument to mitigate this problem.