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Autonomous Cars Will Kill People

Earlier this week a woman was hit and killed by an autonomous car in Tempe, Arizona while she was crossing the road with her bike.

The accident is very sad and my heart goes out to the victim’s family and friends.

If you read my recent piece on the anatomy of disasters, you’ll recognize several of the common features here – although on a smaller scale.

The pedestrian was crossing a 5-lane, 45 MPH street in an area where drivers wouldn’t normally expect pedestrians. The autonomous car, operated by Uber, obviously failed to detect the pedestrian and stop in time. The “safety driver” wasn’t focused on the road or prepared to stop the vehicle.

And it didn’t help that it was very dark outside, this section of the road was unlit, and the pedestrian had no lighting or reflectors to make herself seen.

I’ve seen the video of the accident and it’s terrible. Unfortunately, I think that even an experienced driver would have hit the woman too.

More People Will Be Killed

In 2016, 37,461 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents. That’s over 100 people killed a day in the US. (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)

Driving is an incredibly dangerous activity that we’ve made extremely safe through a lot of hard work over the past 5 decades. Currently the most accident-prone component of driving is us – humans.

We’re often slow, make poor choices, and drive when we’re tired, inebriated, and distracted. In theory, computers would make for much better drivers than humans.

If we are able to develop autonomous cars that are safer than human-driven cars, then I think we’ll be morally obligated to use them.

But that means that more people will die while we develop that capability. In the meantime, we need to have the courage, patience, and wisdom to get there – because it’ll be worth it when we do.