In 2015 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that over 35,000 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes, the majority of those resulting from human error. Technology promoters believe that self-driving vehicles will significantly reduce that number.
Billions of dollars are being spent by automobile and technology companies to develop the technology so that in the future cars will no longer need human drivers. For now, vehicles equipped with self-driving capabilities are sharing the road with human motorists.
On March 24th, Uber took its fleet of self-driving cars that pick up passengers off the roadways in Tempe, Arizona and Pittsburgh, PA while it investigated a crash in Tempe involving an Uber SUV that was hit when another vehicle failed to yield. Although no serious injuries were reported, this collision again raises questions about the safety of self-driving technology and how it interacts with other motorists on the roadway.
According to the Tempe, Arizona police report, Alexandra Cole was making a left hand turn across three lanes of traffic in a Honda just as her light in the intersection was changing from green to yellow. The first two lanes were backed up with cars and Cole crossed these lanes going about 20 mph. As she approached the third lane it appeared clear to make her turn but as she was about to cross she saw a car, the Uber SUV, “flying through the intersection” and could not brake fast enough to completely avoid the collision. The Uber SUV was operated by two employees, Patrick Murphy and Matthew Rentz, in the self-driving mode. There was no passenger in the vehicle. Murphy estimated his Uber SUV was going 38 mph, two miles under the posted speed limit. Murphy said that the traffic signal turned yellow as he entered the intersection and he saw Cole turning left but there was no time to react. Cole struck the SUV which then hit a traffic pole, flipped on its side and collided with two other cars.
Although it appears that Cole was to blame for failing to yield to oncoming traffic, drivers often cross through lanes of traffic when other cars are at a standstill or pick up their speed to make a light before it switches. The question remains as to how self-driving machines respond to these roadway situations; this is still being studied. A spokeswoman for Uber said that a self-driving vehicle will stop at a yellow light if it can comfortably do so or does not have time to cross; the spokeswoman also said that the vehicle will cross an intersection at a yellow light if the vehicle can do so at its current speed.
Uber returned the self-driving vehicles to the roadway on March 27th. The company says it is confident in returning cars to the public roads.
Ride sharing services are leading the way in introducing self-driving vehicles. In urban environments, riders are already comfortable trusting strangers with their safety on the roadways. Are we comfortable trusting our safety to self-driving technology?
By Beth Cole