Autonomous Thoughts on Autonomous Vehicles
Toward the end of March, I saw the headline we have all been anticipating. It was about a fatal accident involving a car being operated on autopilot. I haven’t been looking forward to this headline in the sense that I would ever hope for something terrible to happen to another person. But I expected it because it seemed certain there would be catastrophes connected to the use of self-driving vehicles – especially during the early stages.
My interest was more pronounced because of my connection to this magazine and its frequent discussion of the effect self-driving cars will have on the parking industry. I have shared my opinion, and it’s that the technology is amazing, but I prefer to drive my own car. I’ve also expressed my doubts about the ability of the general public to accept autonomous vehicles.
I saw the headline and, in the smallest way, I felt my position was validated. However, as I read I was lead to a statement made by Tesla. Then I felt less certain about my earlier statements. I think it’s productive when entrenched beliefs and perspectives are challenged by facts or new information, so I gave myself permission to reconsider my opinion. One paragraph, in particular, stuck with me:
In the moments before the collision, which occurred at 9:27 am. on Friday, March 23rd, Autopilot was engaged with the adaptive cruise control follow-distance set to minimum. The driver had received several visual and one audible hands-on warning earlier in the drive and the driver’s hands were not detected on the wheel for six seconds prior to the collision. The driver had about five seconds and 150 meters of unobstructed view of the concrete divider with the crushed crash attenuator, but the vehicle logs show that no action was taken.
According to Tesla, the car was doing what it was supposed to do. Somehow, the driver did not react to the warnings from the car or the road ahead of him, and a tragedy occurred.
Years ago, I worked for a client in the industry of school bus transportation. What I never forgot from that experience was an unbelievable statistic. At that time, 1 to 2 children died each year as a passenger in an accident on a school bus, while around 1,000 died as passengers in other vehicles. And not only are children safer in buses than in cars, they are safer even in a bus that does not have seat belts.
The numbers are similar today but putting kids in the back seat has reduced fatalities by a few hundred. Still, children are safer in buses than they are in cars, but most parents think quite the opposite.
I have occasionally shared this information with other people, but they think I’m strange, and besides that they are unconvinced.
I’m not saying a school bus is the best place for children when other criteria are examined. I encountered bullies, angry bus drivers, and more than my share of secondhand pot smoke on the bus as a child. My brothers and I had no end of fun and caused each other plenty of harm walking to and waiting at the bus stop every morning for years. But that doesn’t change the fact that more lives are lost in family vehicles than are on school buses.
It could be a similar scenario for autonomous vehicles. In fact, Tesla claims it could save 900,000 lives per year worldwide based on its current safety levels. That’s a lot of people. Tesla thinks so, too.
In the past, when we have brought up statistical safety points, we have been criticized for doing so, implying that we lack empathy for the tragedy that just occurred. Nothing could be further from the truth. We care deeply for and feel indebted to those who chose to put their trust in us. However, we must also care about people now and in the future whose lives may be saved if they know that Autopilot improves safety.
Human error will continue to be the challenge as the technology of autonomous vehicles develops. No doubt, other lives will be lost. But it’s not as if our current options are harmless.
I know the parking industry is looking ahead and hoping to participate in the “smart cities” revolution. Autonomous vehicles are a major element of that movement. Being a part of the quest will require a willingness to believe in the cause. For me, I’m ready to consider the value of self-driving cars. I don’t want to get in one just yet, but I’m giving them a chance to convince me.