Why We Need to Accept Self-Driving Cars Will Sometimes Get People Killed

Autonomous cars are going to transform lives and change the economics of transport, but they need to make sure they don’t kill anybody. And that, according to one British government official, is basically an impossible standard.

Shashi Verma, chief technology officer at the Transport for London government body, told an audience Wednesday the bar for robots driving safely on the roads is far higher than it is for humans, and automakers will need to work through that.

“The fundamental problem that the automotive industry would have to solve is the world is perfectly happy killing half a million people on the roads every year,” Verma said at the book launch for Faster, Smarter, Greener: The Future of the Car and Urban Mobility. “Nobody bats an eyelid, it’s not on the front page of any newspaper. The first robot that kills a person will be a news story.”

It’s an issue that has plagued autonomous car makers even before the vehicles exit the early testing stage. Tesla’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system came under intense scrutiny after a driver using the mode in his Tesla Model S collided with a truck last year. The NHTSA later cleared Tesla of any wrongdoing, but that didn’t soften public opinion around autonomy: A staggering two-thirds of Americans told Pew Research in October they would feel unsafe sharing the road with a self-driving freight truck.

The obvious answer seems to be working to make autonomous cars as cautious as possible, but that throws up a number of other issues. Passengers inside cities will want to travel at speeds comparable to today’s vehicles, and super-slow autonomous cars that take too many precautions could lead to an unintended cultural shift.

“If you make them ultra-safe, when I leave this building and cross the road, why would I stop for a car?” Verma said. “Even on the motorway, why stop? I’m gonna cross.”

Other automakers have tackled the safety problem in a new way, choosing to face up to the reality that some accidents are unavoidable. Mercedes-Benz said last year that it would design vehicles to kill pedestrians over drivers, potentially reducing the number of fatalities in big accidents. Christoph von Hugo, Mercedes’s manager of driver assistance systems, reasoned that “if you know you can save at least one person, at least save that one.”

If any city knows about the struggles of automating transport, it’s London. The tube network first started testing automatic trains back in 1962, while the Victoria line was the world’s first automatic underground line when it opened in 1968. The Docklands Light Railway, which opened in 1987, ditches the front cabin altogether to give passengers a view of the train moving forward.

“We’ve run trains without drivers for 50 years now,” Verma said. “I can tell you how difficult it is to look after all the edge cases around making something autonomous. It is not easy at all.”

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