By Jeff Sanford
Toronto, Ontario — March 26, 2018 — In this week’s AV Report: Will a tragedy slow the deployment of AVs?
It was going to happen sooner or later. At some point one of the AVs being tested on American roads was going to strike a pedestrian. It happened last week in Tempe, Arizona. A homeless woman, Elaine Herzberg, 49, was the victim. The Uber self-driving car that hit her was in autonomous mode, making her the first victim to die in a collision with a full self-driving automated vehicle.
The reaction from media outlets around the planet was swift. An endless number of stories appeared noting the tragic (but historic) bit of auto industry news. An important part of the AV story – the rapid rush to deploy AVs with barely any testing – leaked into the mainstream as many were surprised to find they’d been sharing the road with self-driving cars.
As a well-known cycling advocate asked on social media: “There are self-driving vehicles on the road in Toronto? I’ve been sharing the road with self-driving vehicles? Are these safe?”
It’s only been over the last year that AVs have begun to appear on the streets of North American cities. For those not following the auto trade press – and that’s the vast majority of the population – you might not be aware that fully self-driving AVs are being tested and have been on the road in several cities for months now.
In Phoenix, Google’s self-driving car company, Waymo, is testing self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans. The service is now shuttling members of the public around a suburb without human intervention. There is a test taking place at the University of Toronto that has seen an AV driving around downtown. Pittsburgh has also had a program running for some time now. But many only learned about these programs this past week, and so no wonder there is such surprise that self-driving cars are now on the road.
It is remarkable how fast the AV sector has emerged. All of a sudden billions of dollars are being invested, factories retooled and new companies started as the new economy emerges. The AV revolution, an epic once-in-history merging of the digital tech of Silicon Valley and the big steel manufacturing capability of Detroit, is gaining speed, beginning to create real change in the culture.
Huge amounts of money are being invested in this sector. Auto companies are retooling factories. New companies are springing up. Google is about to build a whole new AV-based neighbourhood in Toronto. And so these are exciting times. But it must also be said that the Silicon Valley ethos – innovate at the speed of light, get to market before competitors (even if the product isn’t perfect) – has been the guiding rule in terms of testing AVs. This is a new pace of business for the auto industry, a sector traditionally subject to mighty amounts of government regulation and testing. This has not been the case with AVs.
Some warned this past week the deployment has happened too fast, without enough testing. “At a time when many have lauded the technology as ready for large-scale deployment, ‘this is clear proof that is not yet the case,’” said a research scientist at MIT quoted in the magazine New Scientist. The researcher studies automated driving. “Until we understand the testing and deployment of these systems further, we need to take our time and work through the evolution of the technology,” he was quoted as saying.
Concerns over the safety of AVs flared in July 2016 when a man driving a Tesla Model S in semi-autonomous “Autopilot” mode died when his car struck a tractor-trailer. The death of that driver is considered the first as a result of a semi-autonomous vehicle. This latest accident is the first death as a result of a completely hands-off, self-driving AV.
Will the deployment of these vehicles slow in a wake of the death? Not likely.
Cities and regions have been falling over themselves to notchback regulations to attract testing to their local area. The CEO of Uber famously packed up his test program and moved it out of state when the California Department of Motor Vehicles asked Uber to begin providing more information about its testing program. The then-CEO distributed photos of a bunch of Uber cars put on a flatbed truck to ship them to Arizona, which was happy to wave the regulations California tried to apply. Arizona pushed to become a test site for AVs. It provided a ‘light touch’ regulatory environment. And now the state is written into history as the site of the first AV death. But the journey to an AV-enabled future will continue.
Uber was quick to action in the wake of the news. In the wake of the accident Uber shut down its tests of AVs. The self-driving vehicle being tested in Toronto was also taken off the road and the U of T program was suspended. But there are far too many billions of dollars now being invested in this sector for this parade to turn back.
Also this month GM announced that it is investing $100 million into upgrading two factories to start making the production version of its self-driving Chevy Bolt EV for its upcoming driverless ride-sharing service to be launched next year.
The former Uber CEO who was bounced from his position in the wake of a scandal, turned up this week at a new fund that is repurposing distressed real estate assets like parking lots or abandoned strip malls and turning them into spaces suited for new industries. According to basic Modern AV Theory the current car-based infrastructure, designed for a single-car-ownership model of society, is radically overbuilt for the coming age of AVs. As transportation modes change, so too will land use. Part of the AV story is one about the repurposing of urban land. The former CEO was quoted in the story as saying, “There are over $10 trillion in these real estate assets that will need to be repurposed for the digital era in the coming years.”
That is, this AV trend is much, much bigger than a single pedestrian death. And in fact, the Trump administration has been working to dismantle regulatory roadblocks to self-driving cars. There is currently a major bill pending in Congress that would actually speed the testing of self-driving cars. Elaine Chao, Transportation Secretary, is currently considering a request GM filed in January with NHTSA requesting an exemption to have a small number of autonomous vehicles operate in a rideshare program without steering wheels or human drivers. The journey continues, and with good reason. As a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said on Monday the public should not overreact to the Uber incident. The former chair noted that, “6,000 pedestrians and nearly 40,000 people die annually on U.S. roads in more than 6 million crashes annually.” Which is the strongest argument those in favour of a rapid deployment of AVs can make. AVs have been deployed so rapidly, and without testing because the faster these get on the road the faster the overall vehicle accident death rate will come down. “This is going to be an unfortunate obstacle that we are going to have to deal with to regain belief that these devices are safe,” said the former chair. The AV revolution will go on.