Ask most drivers and they will tell you it was bound to happen sooner or later, but many didn’t expect it to be this soon. So-called self-driving cars haven’t been on the streets very long, even in test markets, and already a person has been killed. The accident happened in Tempe, Arizona on a Sunday night. According to authorities, the Uber car was in “self-driving” mode when it struck the woman. There was a driver in the car supposedly watching to avoid those kinds of mistakes. The driver, however, did not react in time to avoid hitting and killing the woman.
Uber quickly issued a statement that read, in part, they would “fully cooperate with local authorities…” In the meantime, the company has paused the use of self-driving vehicles in other cities including Toronto, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh. According to police, the woman was crossing outside the designated crosswalk. That fact didn’t stop consumers from point the finger directly at Uber, a company that is just barely out from beneath a lingering cloud of negative PR stretching back to last year.
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said the news was incredibly sad, “We’re thinking of the victim’s family as we work with local law enforcement to understand what happened…”
This incident marks the first pedestrian death connected with a self-driving car, an effort that is being pushed, in part, in hopes that it will reduce the number of pedestrian deaths each year. Tens of thousands of people are hit and killed by automobiles each year, and proponents of self-driving or “autonomous” cars believe their computer programs will “see” and “react” better and faster than humans. In many tests, that has been the case, but those tests don’t make the headlines like tragedies such as this one do. The fact that bad outcomes will stay in headlines and news cycles much longer is something proponents of self-driving cars understand, but the suddenness of this tragedy caught the industry a bit off guard. With limited success to draw on, it’s very easy for people who do not support this technology to push back against it now. And, with a public largely undecided about self-driving tech, consumer opinion could go either way.
So, is self-driving technology safe… or not? That’s the question both sides of the argument have not been able to conclusively answer… and that’s exactly the problem. That unknown can easily become fear, creating a scenario that proponents will find it difficult to overcome, especially when they need civic agreement to expand initiatives into smaller cities or rural communities that may not see the immediate benefit of a fleet of self-driving cars… or those who believe the benefits do not outweigh the risks.
Ronn Torossian is the CEO and founder of 5W Public Relations.