The autonomous car industry has a perception problem — and now a group of related companies has banded together to try to solve it.
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Uber’s fatal crash last month was the first self-driving car accident to kill a pedestrian. Then a Tesla Model X in autopilot mode left the driver dead after a fiery crash into a California highway barrier. Following its deadly accident in Tempe, Arizona, Uber halted all its self-driving testing, as did companies such as Nvidia and Toyota.
A group of tech and transportation companies involved in building and testing self-driving vehicles announced the Autonomous Vehicle Coalition on Tuesday. The group aims to tout the enhanced safety of computer-run vehicles, along with economic and job opportunities and overall quality of life for people to get around.
Without human drivers, the group believes, traffic accidents and deaths will decrease and our roads will be safer.
So far, members of the coalition are tangentially related to the self-driving car makers. Mapping company Esri joined the coalition along with Cisco, Econolite, Kuharchik Construction, Gannett Fleming, Phoenix Contact, and Royal Truck and Equipment.
We’ve reached out to Waymo, Tesla and Uber to find out if they plan to join; the coalition says its goal is to “grow membership to a sustainable level.”
“Although every injury and fatality is tragic,” Esri explained further in an email, “this group feels it should not impact further development and implementation of AVs.”
Data cited by the Institute of Transportation Engineers shows 33,000 people are killed annually in about 5.7 million highway traffic accidents in the U.S.
When you consider the number of miles autonomous vehicles have driven (Uber was at 3 million miles before stopping its testing last month, while Waymo is at 5 million and counting), it’s clear that the crash rate is much lower than in human-powered vehicles.
Waymo’s CEO John Krafcik told Bloomberg that the Uber crash led to him redoubling his efforts to bring self-driving cars to the masses. It didn’t discourage him, but instead served as a rallying call for the industry to step up and bring in the potentially life-saving technology.
After Tesla revealed that its semi-autonomous driving feature, Autopilot, was engaged during the recent fatal crash on Highway 101 in the Bay Area, this video circulated online — showing the self-driving feature making a potentially catastrophic lane choice mistake.
Tesla says its Autopilot feature is not intended to take over driving altogether, and drivers are reminded to stay alert and ready to take over control. Audio and visual cues continuously pop up. Drivers are required to have hands on the wheel — and if the system detects a hands-off driver, eventually Autopilot will turn off and lock out.
When used correctly, according to a U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report [PDF], Autopilot was found to reduce crash rates by 40 percent.
That report was in response to a different fatal Tesla crash in Florida in 2016, clearing the Autopilot feature of any fault. Tesla pointed to an “over-reliance” on the automated feature as a major factor.
Still, no matter how the tech is intended to be used, fear of how it can go wrong is front and center. The autonomous car industry will need to deal with these fears for some time to come.