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Roadblocks to a self-driving world

Kaitlyn Buss
The Detroit News

Self-driving technology is moving fast. But its first fatality in May, and news of a non-fatal rollover accident just last week, revealed big challenges for the industry even as the country’s largest companies race to get the vehicles to market.

Amid the buzz the auto industry and technology giants are generating about this nascent technology platform — predicting fully autonomous vehicles to be on the market in just five years — their safety and reliability have hardly been tested.

The victim of the first fatal accident in a car marketed as self-driving had put his Tesla Model S in Autopilot mode when he died. Last week’s accident, also in a Tesla, occurred while the car was in Autopilot, according to the driver. Tesla is disputing that claim.

Important as it is to develop new technologies, which always involves risk, it doesn’t seem widely acknowledged there will be many more deaths and injuries on the road to autonomous vehicles’ viability.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk argues its self-driving cars are safer than human driving; this is the first fatality in over 130 million miles of Autopilot usage, compared to a death every 94 million miles for all vehicles in the U.S.

Yet a study this year from the RAND Corporation found we won’t know with certainty for many years how safe autonomous vehicles are for general use.

To know they have a fatality rate better than that of traditional cars, a 100-vehicle fleet would have to be test driven 24 hours a day, 365 days a year at 25 mph.

And to determine that self-driving vehicles fail less often than the human driven cars would require testing for five billion miles, which would take 225 years monitoring that same 100-vehicle fleet.

Another assumption that’s been made about the consumer market for self-driving vehicles is that people want to give up their control behind the wheel. But many people just enjoy driving.

Most drivers believe they’re better and safer than the next. And every story of an autonomous car death will reinforce that belief, regardless of which is statistically safer, and nudge consumers away from the autonomous-model market. That’s a real perception hurdle for the industry to overcome.

Beyond that, there’s a real concern with how centralized control of these cars could become.

Though most automakers are favoring semi-autonomous systems that still require driver input, Google is pursuing fully autonomous vehicles that don’t. If Google’s model ultimately wins, drivers would have essentially zero control over their fates.

Government regulation and intervention would be unavoidable, and it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where drivers are subject to a host of government caveats before entering and driving their cars. Do we really want bureaucrats to take over this function, too?

Even though autonomous vehicles will initially cost at least an extra $10,000, proponents argue consumers will quickly recoup the cost from fuel savings.

But with the drastically improved fuel economy offered by today’s gas-powered vehicles, and reasonable gas prices, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Americans aren’t wild about electrified vehicles that have been envisioned as the best platforms for autonomous driving.

Big questions remain in the market for autonomous vehicles, and it will be hard for the industry to control the answers.


Twitter: @KaitlynBuss