The death of 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg after she was struck by a self-driving Uber Volvo in Arizona this week came as a shock to many.
Elaine was the first pedestrian fatality as a result of a crash involving an autonomous vehicle. Joshua Brown also died in Florida in 2016 after he placed his Tesla in autopilot and it struck an 18-wheel tractor trailer.
Uber has suspended its driverless car tests and Toyota has followed suit. One expert who has worked around the personal transportation sector told me yesterday that it “feels like the industry is trying to run before it can safely walk”.
But amid all the discussion over how safe autonomous vehicles are – and many industry figures will point to a far lower risk of accident compared with vehicles driven by humans – are we missing the point?
There has been a great deal of hype around driverless vehicles, with government, private equity houses and automotive giants alike pouring investment into a technology seen as the future of transportation.
Jaguar Land Rover is pressing ahead with its ongoing autonomous car testing in the Midlands while government-backed trials of small self-driving vehicles in South London are due to end on Friday.
But if there are cars driving themselves around, on their way to the next customer who has summoned them, it could make our heaving cities even more congested. And until electric cars become the norm, levels of pollution would also rise.
On a personal level, I don’t see what I have to gain from using a self-driving car. I have to remain alert in case of emergencies anyway, so it’s not like I can catch up on the new series of Gomorrah on my way home.
The general consensus is that once vehicles drive themselves, none of us will need to own a car. As easyCar CEO Richard Laughton told me in the most recent edition of BusinessCloud, costs including insurance, maintenance, MOT and tax make it a fairly unviable option for many – especially as those cars can sit doing nothing for 23 out of every 24 hours.
However many of us do not live in cities. I, for one, commute to Manchester from Lancashire’s Rossendale Valley and feel like I could not do without a second car. For a few months I shared the commute with one of my neighbours, a techie who also works in Manchester, until our hours began to diverge and it became impractical.
After work today we’re hauling five kids – two of them ours – to a soft play centre for my eldest son’s birthday party. How would that work in a world where I summon my transportation from a local depot?
Then there are the golf clubs in the boot – where are they going to live? I don’t fancy lugging them around on the bus, to be honest.
There are huge challenges in developing systems capable of mapping to our ever-evolving road network, never mind the legal issues surrounding culpability in the event of an accident and the potential for cyber attacks.
Perhaps in a decade’s time road deaths will be eliminated and it will seem irresponsible to place a human being in control of a car.
But for now, finding ways of sharing our vehicles seems a simpler way to reduce traffic and pollution and therefore improve safety.