Home > opinion > Uber crash shows driverless cars need to slow down

Sydney: Here’s a vision of the future for you: A fleet of 25 million robots roam the streets of America, killing someone every day.

The owners of the robots skew toward the wealthiest 10% of the country, who use the technology to get more time sleeping, posting on Instagram, getting over drinking binges and watching cat videos. The victims skew toward the poor and underprivileged.

Believe it or not, that might be a slightly rose-tinged view of the near future of autonomous vehicles: A situation where self-driving cars make up 10% of the US vehicle fleet and cause 90% fewer fatal accidents. If the autonomous fleet is larger, or less successful at averting accidents, the toll will be higher.

That’s the context in which to think about Uber Technologies Inc.’s decision to suspend road tests of its self-driving cars Monday, after one of them struck and killed a woman in Arizona.

The incident shouldn’t come as a surprise. Following the lead of many experts in automobile and aviation safety, Gadfly has been arguing for years that the industry needs to be more honest with itself about the risks inherent in automated driving. It’s well past time for the technologies’ boosters to heed this wake-up call.

This isn’t Luddism. The lesson from other transportation technologies is that autonomous cars should eventually become very safe. But the same history indicates the most likely route to that destination involves learning the grim lessons of fatalities as accidents start to spike in line with adoption of the technology. Transportation safety advances the same way Max Planck saw science progressing: One funeral at a time.

What practical lessons should be drawn from this?

Silicon Valley has proved adept over the decades at developing new technologies at lightning speed —but as the fallout of the Theranos Inc. scandal has shown, a beta-testing, shoot-for-the-stars approach that might work for selfie apps can become scandalous in dealing with people’s lives.

That’s the lesson for the auto industry. “Move fast and break things" is all very well, unless the things that end up broken are human bodies. Bloomberg Gadfly

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