Self-Driving Cars Take A Backseat After Questions Of Pedestrian Safety

Mechanic man holding clipboard and check the car

After the first pedestrian death involving a self-driving vehicle, self-driving car companies are claiming the issue isn’t with their vehicles but with pedestrians. According to the Seattle Times, self-driving car advocates say pedestrians need to modify their behavior if they want to stay safe on the road with autonomous vehicles.

“What we tell people is, ‘Please be lawful and please be considerate,'” said Andrew Ng. Ng is a machine learning researcher and head of a venture fund for AI-enabled companies.

Car companies have been asking the question of whether or not self-driving cars are capable of identifying and avoiding pedestrians crossing the street since the beginning. But the question only became a serious issue since March 2018 when a pedestrian was hit by an autonomous vehicle while she was walking her bike across the street at night outside of a crosswalk.

The preliminary report from the incident says that the autonomous vehicle sensors had detected the woman. The decision-making software discounted the vehicle sensor data as a false positive.

Competition for self-driving services has been fierce. In fact, compared to the $722.8 billion market worth the global automotive aftermarket industry is expected to reach by 2020, the self-driving car market is expected to reach $7 trillion as soon as 2050.

General Motors set a goal to provide a self-driving vehicle without pedals or a steering wheel by 2019. Google’s Waymo is also set to a launch a self-driving taxi service in Phoenix later this year.

But it’s unclear whether either of these self-driving vehicles will be able to drive outside of a specified area or whether they’ll be able to drive without a safety driver present.

What’s more, other self-driving service initiatives are beginning to lose steam. Although 18% of all vehicles sold in the U.S. are pickup trucks and 94% of daily hazmat shipments are performed by trucks, Uber has stopped developing its self-trucking truck program.

Elon Musk has also shelved his plans for an autonomous Tesla vehicle. Daimler Trucks report that a self-driving truck will take at least five years to produce.

On the other hand, automaker Ford says it plans to win the self-driving car race not by creating a self-driving vehicle the fastest but rather by creating the safest vehicle.

“[Developing] self-driving vehicles is not simply about the technology — it is about earning the trust of our customers and of those cities and businesses that will ultimately use it,” said Sherif Marakby, the CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC.

“Safety, reliability, and the experience the technology will enable are the key pillars to developing trust,” Marakby said.

Ng and other self-driving car advocates say we may be able to get self-driving vehicles on the road faster if pedestrians behave less erratically by using crosswalks so the self-driving car software would be able to identify them.

Others say these suggestions that pedestrians modify their behavior are a sign that self-driving technology isn’t as ready for the road as tech companies envisioned.

Robotics researcher and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rodney Brooks, said in a critical blog post that self-driving cars were created to eliminate traffic deaths. South Carolina alone has 62% more fatal car crashes than the national average.

“Now [Ng] is saying that [self-driving cars] will eliminate traffic deaths as long as all humans are trained to change their behavior?” Brooks said.

Its true pedestrians need to use crosswalks and obey traffic laws. Yet, New York University professor of psychology, Gary Marcus, says it isn’t only pedestrians that are the problem.

If the only way humans would be able to achieve safe self-driving cars is by segregating them from human drivers and pedestrians, Marcus says, we already have the technology available in the form of trains.

“The AI we would really need hasn’t arrived yet,” said Marcus. “[Self-driving advocates are] just redefining the goalposts to make the job easier.”

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