Are self-driving cars really the answer to safety on the roads?

At around 10:00 p.m. on March 18, 2018, Elaine Herzberg was killed while walking her bicycle into the roadway on a street in Tempe, Arizona. The “driver” of the car that hit her was an Uber self-driving car. The person assigned by Uber to monitor the vehicle was looking down at her cell phone and did not see Herzberg until it was too late.

Elaine Herzberg crash

Rafaela Vasquez, pictured left, at the moment before her self-driving Uber hit Elaine Herzberg, pictured right. Photo credit: Reuters

Who is at fault for Elaine Herzberg’s accident?

The roadway was straight with nothing blocking visibility. The vehicle’s sensors detected Herzberg’s presence in the roadway more than 100 yards away, but after detecting her, the system became confused. Was she a pedestrian, a biker, or just an object? By the time the vehicle software recognized the collision risk, the crash was unavoidable with just 1.2 seconds to impact.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the incident. They found that the probable cause for the crash was the failure of the vehicle operator to monitor the roadway because she was distracted by her cell phone.

However, in addition to the human oversight error, the NTSB investigation found other contributors to the crash. For instance, Uber disabled the car’s standard emergency braking system so the braking system would not interfere with the self-driving software. Additionally, the self-driving software itself “failed to register Herzberg as a pedestrian” because she was crossing mid-block and the “system design did not include consideration for a jaywalking pedestrian.”

So, was this fatal crash a one-off? Just a freak accident on the way to a nirvana where self-driving cars eliminate vehicle crashes on our roads? Many people think so.

NTSB investigating Elaine Herzberg crash

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) examines the Uber car used in the incident. Photo credit: Reuters

What are the benefits of self-driving cars?

With the vast majority of roadway crashes attributed to human error, the use of autonomous vehicles could eliminate that source of error.

  • Autonomous vehicles will never be distracted by text messages, changing radio stations, or drinking and driving.
  • These vehicles also offer much greater roadway perception than human drivers. They use a sophisticated array of sensors, high-definition cameras, microphones, radar, and laser scanners that create three-dimensional maps of the roadway.
  • They have better “night vision” than human drivers and can detect objects at a much greater distance than humans can.

Is the technology for self-driving vehicles safe now?

The reality is that autonomous vehicles are not yet at the performance level where they can prevent accidents. Reporting data is inconsistent, and developers of self-driving cars have been reluctant to release details. Indeed, Waymo sued the California DMV to keep its crash data secret, claiming that it should be considered a trade secret. But available reports show that crashes involving self-driving vehicles occur at a higher rate than crashes involving humans.

self-driving uberEven less sophisticated systems, such as active driving assistance systems, (ADAS), actually interfere with safe driving. AAA’s testers found that these systems had trouble keeping vehicles in their lanes and allowed cars to come too close to other vehicles and guardrails. The testing showed that 73% of errors involved instances of lane departure or erratic lane position. The ADAS can also disengage with little notice, creating the risk of a distracted driver being thrust back into control of a vehicle traveling at high speed.

Another problem with automated or self-driving vehicles involves human interaction with technology. Automation complacency is a phenomenon where drivers simply assume that the “tech has got it” and become complacent about their responsibility for safely operating on the roadways.

While we all enjoy backup cameras, and warning systems that help keep us safe and alert on the roadway, we need to understand the limitations of these systems. We shouldn’t become overly reliant on technology and assume that the system provides a perfect solution to highway safety. In all states, drivers remain responsible for safe conduct on the roadways, regardless of the sophisticated technology that our vehicles might be equipped with.

And if you have been injured in an accident, regardless of who, or what, was driving the other vehicle, you have the right to talk to a lawyer to protect your rights. The car accident lawyers at Allen & Allen are there to help. Call for a free case evaluation today at 866-388-1307.