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Driverless cars — not foolproof yet!

Posted on Mar 22, 2018 by: Scott West

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A revelation came to me about driverless vehicles: So long as humans remain in the equation, there will be unforeseen situations that can lead to serious injury.




I’ve written before about obstacles to driverless car development: Inclement weather, road conditions, and equipment failure. Until engineers solve these issues, human drivers can't devote all their in-transit time to drinking, reading, or sleeping.

On Monday, something I hadn’t considered came to pass — the first known pedestrian death at the "hands" of an autonomous vehicle. Even with a human safety driver behind the wheel, a woman crossing the road was struck and later died of her injuries. Uber, law enforcement, and other entities are currently investigating the precise cause of the collision; all we know for certain is that neither human driver nor autonomous detection software performed any evasive action before impact.

On many occasions, I've seen firsthand how pedestrians — some inebriated — lose track of their surroundings. I recently traveled to Austin during the annual South by Southwest event. Concerts are held after dark in downtown venues, with thousands of revelers crossing streets and paying very little attention to traffic. Last Tuesday, I had to stop abruptly — within three seconds — as an eager and inattentive pedestrian in the middle of the street cleared my front bumper by inches, only to turn around and jump back in front of my car to retrieve something!

Can technology end the need for human diligence in transportation in the near future? Emphatically, no.

Aviation is one example. Planes are equipped with sophisticated electronics like autopilot, GPS tracking, and advanced instrument landing systems. Yet human pilots must remain stewards of the aircraft, monitoring conditions in case something unexpected happens and requires qualified human judgment to handle effectively.

The unexpected happens. As long as a chance of the unforeseen exists, human judgment will be a necessary element in transportation.

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