March was a bad month for driverless cars.
On March 18th, a self-driving Uber vehicle was involved in the death of a pedestrian; it is believed to be the first pedestrian death involving a self-driving car. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey responded by immediately suspending Uber’s self-driving testing privileges. Uber halted all testing, including tests in Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto.
Arizona was previously a haven for self-driving car testing, with very light regulations. In fact, in early March the governor had allowed testing of self driving cars without a human in the car.
Meanwhile, Telsa has confirmed the use of Autopilot during a fatal collision on March 23rd. In a statement, Telsa attempted to bring attention to the overall safety of the technology:
Over a year ago, our first iteration of Autopilot was found by the U.S. government to reduce crash rates by as much as 40%. Internal data confirms that recent updates to Autopilot have improved system reliability.
In the US, there is one automotive fatality every 86 million miles across all vehicles from all manufacturers. For Tesla, there is one fatality, including known pedestrian fatalities, every 320 million miles in vehicles equipped with Autopilot hardware. If you are driving a Tesla equipped with Autopilot hardware, you are 3.7 times less likely to be involved in a fatal accident.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that self-driving car companies aren’t taking advantage of California’s relaxed new regulations. April 2nd was the first day that driverless cars could drive without a human safety operator – and yet, not one company opted for true driverless testing. In fact, a few days before the regulation went into effect, only one company had even applied for the permit. There are 50 driverless car companies operating in California.
The North Carolina Turnpike Authority is actively promoting the Triangle Expressway in Western Wake County as a place for driverless car testing. No companies have taken them up on the offer.
There’s no question that driverless cars will become a reality both in the supply chain and for private use. But it raises questions – how much of a set back will we see from the events of last month? And is the recent shyness of autonomous car companies due to PR concerns, or is the technology further behind then expected?
Toyota has halted testing of its autonomous cars, citing concern for the emotional impact that the recent accidents would have on their test drivers.
Japan’s autonomous car industry doesn’t make headlines the way American companies have – many have taken this to be a sign of inferior technology, but that isn’t that case. In part, their lack of road testing is a marketing strategy. The market for Japan’s self driving cars will be the aging population, so demonstrating safety is of prime importance. Whereas American car makers are targeting young, tech savvy commuters, so pushing the envelope is given higher priority.
Will the Japanese strategy of slow and steady be newly adopted in America? Or will these incidents be a tiny hiccup in the months to come? Time will tell.