On Sunday night, a self-driving car operated by Uber struck and killed a pedestrian, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, on North Mill Avenue in Tempe, Arizona. It appears to be the first time an automobile driven by a computer has killed a human being by force of impact. The car was traveling at 38 miles per hour. An initial investigation by Tempe police indicated that the pedestrian might have been at fault. According to that report, Herzberg appears to have come "from the shadows," stepping off the median into the roadway, and ending up in the path of the car while jaywalking across the street.
The announcement throws down the gauntlet for other carmakers and technology companies that are working on similar technology. Nearly every carmaker has committed to some level of autonomy in their vehicles over the next few years. But most of them are pursuing much lower levels of autonomy within their vehicles. There's a scale that's come into use to describe these different technologies, which appears in the chart below. Most car companies--Tesla included--are deploying Levels 2 or 3, in which humans and cars switch off driving the car.
So, I compiled all the grand promises that the world's traditional carmakers have made in the past two years or so, and one thing is clear: Either the automotive world is going to undergo a radical transformation around 2020, or these companies have seriously erred in their planning. Volkswagen corporate is engaged in a major initiative they've dubbed "Together-Strategy 2025," which ties together the electrification and smartening of cars. As part of that, they've promised to "bring highly automated driving functions to market as a core competency from 2021." Recently, they introduced an on-demand self-driving car-like thing, which sort of looks like a character in Thomas the Tank Engine: Future Edition. Audi, which is a part of the Volkswagen Group, has been more aggressive.
In the era of self-driving cars, a scary but otherwise uneventful car crash can be huge news. This was the case in Tempe, Arizona, on Friday, when an Uber self-driving car was hit so hard that it rolled onto its side. There were no serious injuries reported. Uber has grounded its fleet of self-driving cars in Arizona as a result, a spokeswoman for the company told me. "We are continuing to look into this incident, and can confirm we had no backseat passengers in the vehicle," an Uber spokesperson said in a statement provided to The Atlantic.
Hurricane Matthew's record rains were but the first of many obstacles faced by millions of evacuees in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas this past week. Most did make it to safety, thanks to evacuation orders, well-planned emergency procedures, and traffic managers switching up lanes to move a glut of vehicles (contraflow for the win). Given the capabilities that carmakers are rapidly approaching with autonomous-vehicle technology, this isn't mere idle speculation: The U.S. Department of Transportation has been studying how car-to-car communications, a critical piece of the anticipated self-driving future, might improve evacuation procedures. For one thing, even partially autonomous vehicles could improve traffic flow, if there were enough of them.
Uber's self-driving cars are today available to passengers in Pittsburgh, a move that signals the ride-sharing giant's seriousness about its future with autonomous vehicles. It is a pivotal moment for the company--yet Uber had to clear surprisingly few regulatory hurdles to get to this point. That's because all you need to operate a self-driving vehicle on public roads in Pennsylvania is the right technology: no special permit or license, no unique registration, no safety clearance, nothing. Uber's driverless taxis will have humans sitting behind the wheel--ready to take control of the vehicle if necessary--and that's all that matters under Pennsylvania law. "As long as there is a licensed driver in the driver's seat operating the vehicle, they do not need to be touching the steering wheel," said Kurt Myers, the deputy secretary for Driver and Vehicle Services for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
In the rapidly growing world of self-driving vehicles, Google is a clear leader. And Chris Urmson has been the human face of the company's Self-Driving Car Project since it launched back in 2009. So it's big news that Urmson is leaving Google, a move he announced over the weekend in a blog post. It's also, so far, a big mystery as to what that means--for Urmson, for Google, and for any of its competitors. The biggest question is: Was he poached?
We already know humans are not reliable drivers. This is an uncontroversial fact, and one of the main reasons the developers of self-driving vehicles believe the technology could save so many lives. People make dangerous mistakes on the roads all the time, and more than 1.25 million people die in traffic accidents around the world every year as a result. Even when humans are required to stay completely engaged with the task of driving, many of them don't. Many people don't keep their foot hovering above the brake when cruise control is on, for instance.
Federal officials are investigating a crash that killed the driver of a Model S, a Tesla vehicle with a partially autonomous driving system, in a move that has major implications for the future of driverless vehicles. "This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated …" Tesla wrote in a statement on Thursday. "It is important to emphasize that the NHTSA action is simply a preliminary evaluation to determine whether the system worked according to expectations." The investigation may be standard procedure, but it's also certain to influence the ongoing conversation about the safety of self-driving vehicles. The Model S isn't technically a driverless car, but Tesla has been a vocal player in the race to bring truly driverless cars to market.
Decades before Google started outfitting Lexus SUVs with sensors and self-driving software, the driverless car du jour was an otherwise ordinary-looking Pontiac. In the 1920s and 1930s, a driverless car was more commonly known as a "phantom auto," and demonstrations of the technology drew thousands of spectators in cities across the United States. These cars weren't computer-driven, as they are today, but remote controlled. It's not clear from newspaper archives and other written accounts how many were ever in existence, anyway, though we do get a general sense of how they worked: The person operating the car would often follow in a second vehicle some distance behind; or, in at least one case, in a low-flying airplane, according to a 1932 account in the Times Recorder of Zanesville, Ohio. The car, which the newspaper called "one of the most amazing products of modern science," could be operated from as far as five miles away, its inventor said.