It was inevitable that a self-driving vehicle would hit a pedestrian and cause a fatality. While the technology that enables vehicles to operate autonomously has developed to the point that it works as intended in most situations, it's still being tested and perfected.
Potential failure is why Uber still has humans behind the wheel. The self-driving system can become confused where it can't see lane markers, when there's bad weather or when there's heavy traffic with cars unpredictably changing lanes.
And yet, self-driving cars have the potential to be much better drivers than humans. They can see in the dark hundreds of feet down the road, thanks to onboard radar and Lidar. And they don't get drunk or distracted or suffer from poor eyesight. Self-driving cars should be able to anticipate and react faster and better than a human.
So why was Elaine Herzberg struck by a self-driving Uber, as she pushed her bicycle across a busy roadway? The video released by the Tempe Arizona Police Department shows us what the human Uber operator was doing at the time of the crash and the view out the front dash.
What's obvious is that the human operator wasn't paying attention and didn't see the woman until it was too late. And the car's autonomous driving system didn't detect the person at all. Did the sensors fail? Was there a software glitch? Would crossing at a known pedestrian crosswalk have made a difference (she was about 100 feet away)?
Until questions are answered about why the sensors in the vehicle didn't "see" the woman and her bicycle, Uber is suspending the operation of its driverless vehicles. I believe autonomous vehicles have considerable benefits which will lead to far greater safety on the road. Hopefully, the issues that caused this crash will be resolved quickly.
[Driverless vehicle concept via BigStockPhoto]