from the human-error dept
The internet ink has barely dried on Karl’s post about an Uber self-driving vehicle striking and killing a pedestrian in Arizona, and we already have an indication from the authorities that the vehicle probably isn’t to blame for the fatality. Because public relations waits for nobody, Uber suspended its autonomous vehicles in the wake of the death of a woman in Tempe, but that didn’t keep fairly breathless headlines being painted all across the mainstream media. The stories that accompanied those headlines were more careful to mention that an investigation is required before anyone knows what actually happened, but the buzz created by the headlines wasn’t so nuanced. I actually saw this in my own office, where several people could be heard mentioning that autonomous vehicles were now done.
But that was always silly. It’s an awkward thing to say, but the fact that it took this long for AVs to strike and kill a pedestrian is a triumph of technology, given just how many people we humans kill with our cars. Hell, the Phoenix area itself had 11 pedestrian deaths by car in the last week, with only one of them being this Uber car incident. And now all of that hand-wringing is set to really look silly, as the Tempe police chief is indicating that no driver, human or AI, would likely have been able to prevent this death.
The chief of the Tempe Police has told the San Francisco Chronicle that Uber is likely not responsible for the Sunday evening crash that killed 49-year-old pedestrian Elaine Herzberg.
“I suspect preliminarily it appears that the Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident,” said Chief Sylvia Moir.
Herzberg was “pushing a bicycle laden with plastic shopping bags,” according to the Chronicle’s Carolyn Said, when she “abruptly walked from a center median into a lane of traffic.”
After viewing video captured by the Uber vehicle, Moir concluded that “it’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway.”
So, once again, this tragedy has almost nothing to do with automobile AI and everything to do with human beings being faulty, complicated creatures that make mistakes. We don’t need to assign blame or fault to a woman who died to admit to ourselves that not only did the self-driving car do nothing wrong in this instance, but also that it might just be true to say that the car’s AI had a far better chance of avoiding a fatality than the average human driver. The car was not speeding. It did not swerve. It did not adjust its speed prior to the collision.
This obviously isn’t the conclusion of the police’s investigation, but when the police chief is already making these sorts of noises early on, it’s reasonable to conclude that the visual evidence of what happened is pretty clear. Sadly, all this likely means is that the major media websites of the world will have to bench their misleading headlines until the next death that may or may not be the fault of a self-driving vehicle.