In Tempe, Arizona, a homeless woman was pushing a bicycle carrying plastic shopping bags and walked from a center median into a lane of traffic. She was immediately struck by a self-driving Uber car operating in autonomous mode.
The car was traveling 38 mph in a 35 mph zone, and never braked. Police say the tragedy wasn’t the car’s fault, but it doesn’t matter. Uber has suspended use of the self-driving cars, and history tells us that the devices may be on a road to oblivion due to an unavoidable collapse of public trust.
I’ve been expecting this. To be precise, I’ve been expecting the first fatality inside a self-driving car, and that will happen soon enough. When it does, I think it is a close call whether self-driving cars ever recover, especially if the fatal accident is especially gory, or involves children.
All it took, remember, to end airship travel forever was one spectacular accident, when the Hindenburg burst into flames and was captured in photographs and newsreels. Before that, airships had a good safety record. Another vivid example was the 1933 Dymaxion, a streamlined car on three wheels created by visionary Buckminster Fuller. All three wheels turned, giving the Dymaxion the ability to pull into parking spaces in one move. But the design was unstable. Three were built, hailed by investors, the media and celebrities as a break-through, and then one crashed, killing the driver. And that was the end of the Dymaxion. It sure was cool, though…
I suspect that self-driving cars will be the Dymaxion all over again, worse, in fact, because of the 24-hour news cycle. The vast, vast majority of Americans have never used a self-driving car, and are naturally suspicious and dubious of them, as we are when anything is new. If the first time they notice the technology is when it kills someone, it won’t matter that the accident was an anomaly, or not the technology’s fault, or that the new cars have great potential and the bugs will be worked out. We already have cars that work just fine, thanks.
This is risk-reward thinking, and in this case, I don’t think it’s necessarily irresponsible or irrational. When something we view as essential kills people, we accept the risk. When something we see as a luxury or something we have no use for personally is involved in a tragedy, it is easy to say, “The hell with that!” This is why it is so easy for the response to a mass shooting to turn into “Who needs guns?” With guns, however, there is a large portion of the public that doesn’t think of guns as strange, that uses and trust them, and that does not see any acceptable substitute. (There is also no constitutional right to self-driving cars.)There was no such segment of the public to fight for zeppelins, or silver, zeppelin-shaped three-wheeled cars, or, I fear, self-driving cars.