On Sunday, March 19, Elaine Herzberg, 49, of Tempe, Ariz., was struck and killed by an Uber-operated Volvo XC90 operating in autonomous mode. Photos courtesy Tempe (Ariz.) Police Department
Who would’ve thought this was gonna happen? Me, that’s who! I’ve written about it in this magazine repeatedly. I’ve blogged about it, performed keynote speeches about it, and literally shouted it from the rooftops as the modern-day voice crying out in the wilderness.
Well, guess what, Gomer? “Surprise, surprise,” at around 10 p.m. on Sunday, March 18, an Uber-operated vehicle killed a pedestrian, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, in Tempe, Ariz., while operating in autonomous mode. She was walking her bicycle across North Mill Avenue when the Volvo XC90 — with a so-called “safety driver” behind the wheel, playing with his phone — struck her head-on at 40 miles per hour.
Is this the same experiment that resulted in a collision with another vehicle last year, a month after it started? And wasn’t it just a little over two years ago that a Tesla on “Autopilot” ran full-speed through a white tractor-trailer its virtual eyes mistook for the sky, killing its driver?
Its seems as if every tech company and vehicle manufacturer is racing to bring their version of autonomous vehicles to market. But as I have asked repeatedly, what gives them the right to test them on public roads and highways?
Unsafe at Any Speed
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the incident, and the company could face serious charges for the death of Elaine Herzberg. But that same agency has been sitting on their thumbs, refusing to issue guidelines until after the fatality.
So let’s be clear: These vehicles are far from safe — not for the occupants, nor for innocent bystanders and other drivers. Nearly every experiment has gone haywire at some point. Fender benders and slight mishaps can be swept under the rug. A pedestrian fatality is national news.
Rafael Vasquez was the “safety driver” behind the wheel of the Uber-operated SUV that struck and killed an Arizona woman in March. Drivers are advised to keep their eyes on the road and hands hovering above the steering wheel while in autonomous mode.
Don’t forget that autonomous vehicles are being pushed on us by the same manufacturers that have coldly calculated the legal costs of their own customers’ fatalities against their production budgets. Does that mean some manufacturers value money over lives? Damn right it does.
Weeks before the crash, an executive order issued by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey went into effect. Under pressure after welcoming driverless vehicle testers with open arms, Ducey effectively made those companies criminally responsible for injuries or deaths. Of course, he was vague as to what they would be charged with. I’m thinking manslaughter.
The bottom line is the bottom line: This is all about money. And don’t try to play the safety card here. Let me know when the benefits and demand outweigh the risks. As of this writing, there is no public mandate for autonomous vehicles. Almost every survey and report — even those issued by industry-biased fake news outlets — shows that somewhere between 60% and 70% of the American public will not buy or even ride in one.
Swine at the Trough
The motivation for Uber is obvious: Driver commissions represent 80% of their costs, they can’t find enough drivers for some markets, and they have essentially zero coverage in rural areas. For Google and other tech companies, it’s purely a money grab. They made a move into a market they were not currently harvesting. Apple has introduced integrated technology they can upsell as regularly as the latest iPhone.
But the biggest payoff of all is reserved for the manufacturers. They have an opportunity to replace every car on the planet. But they can’t do it alone. You see, I don’t know who’s paying whom here, but I suspect every politician from the D.C. swamp to City Hall is getting their palms greased.
Why? First, a river of autonomous vehicles will require an entirely unique, ultra-high-tech infrastructure, and every technology company worth its salt is bellying up to the trough. I’m talking stop signs that communicate with the car and “smart” signals that direct traffic. I’m talking vehicles communicating with each other as they approach. It will be extremely complex.
Of course, malicious nerds are already hacking into cars, and that’s with fairly limited built-in tech. I dread the day terrorists get the software that will allow them to disrupt traffic and cause massive pileups on the interstate.
Second, the manufacturers need someone to pass legislation that will label your manually operated Dodge Challenger as an obsolete safety hazard that needs to be phased out. The factories will write the law and their pocket politicians will push it through. After all, we can’t have unreliable human drivers on the same roads with autonomous cars and trucks, can we? Someone could get hurt!
Regardless of the incident in Tempe, the factories and tech geeks won’t be discouraged for long. Gov. Ducey’s executive order is a step in the right direction. Someone needs to face meaningful penalties when these things happen. But I am not talking about the companies; I am talking about the people who work in those companies and made those decisions. They should be charged as criminals.
A few years ago, a certain domestic manufacturer was heavily fined for concealing defects they knew were killing their customers. At the time, I thought certain individuals — some of whom still work there — should have been charged with manslaughter. … Or worse, considering it was premeditated.
We need tough laws and oversight. Right now, driverless cars are the Wild West, and these high-tech cowboys are risking our lives without regard. If our politicians are not already bought off or too stupid to care, we need to know every move they’re making.
Jim Ziegler is the president of Ziegler SuperSystems Inc. and one of the nation’s best-known dealer consultants, trainers, and speakers. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.