Weekly Brief: Pandemic Highlights Need for Driverless

Fatal car crashes on American roads rose at an alarming rate during the first four months of Covid-19, reported the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration (NHTSA) last week.

After three consecutive years of the fatality rate dropping, the second quarter of 2020, from March through June, saw a 30% spike caused by a host of risky driving behaviors. These included driving under the influence, speeding and shirking a seat belt, all of which, NHTSA believes, stems from the broader backdrop of the pandemic. More people were at home, many were out of jobs and the vast majority of us were feeling stressed and isolated during lockdown. The open road seemed like a welcomed escape.

“We’ve never seen trends like this and we feel an urgency to turn this around as quickly as possible,” said James Owens, NHTSA’s deputy administrator. NHTSA found that average speeds on American highways increased during the first four months of the pandemic, as did extreme speeding incidents. The agency did some sleuthing with local trauma centers and discovered that 67% of seriously or fatally injured drivers tested positive for alcohol or some other active drug. The rate of marijuana usage among seriously or fatally injured drivers was up 50%, and the rate of opioid use was up nearly 50% as well.

One hopes that these are all short-term trends. Once the pandemic recedes, America can get back on track with safer driving habits and fewer fatalities. At the same time, no one knows when the pandemic will go away and the 8,870 people who have already lost their lives on American roads this year demand us to think critically about how we can improve driver safety, or remove drivers completely from the equation.

However, safety advocates are alarmed at the lack of regulation and federal oversight governing the self-driving car industry. Whenever a city considers embracing self-driving car pilots, safety issues are raised over the recklessness with which we’re embracing technology that remains, by and large, untested and untrustworthy. They fear autonomous tech will make us less safe, not more safe. They have a point.

Last week the investigative journalism site The Information published an in-depth report on the state of Uber’s self-driving car unit. If the report’s claims can be believed, it doesn’t make for pretty reading. It alleges Uber’s Advanced Technology Group is blighted by in-fighting and dysfunction and its robo-cars still can’t make it more than half a mile without producing a sudden jerk or making an unpredictable maneuver. This, after Uber has spent $2.5Bn in pursuit of a self-driving car, a cash spree that has included a fatal collision with a pedestrian and a lawsuit with Waymo over cyber theft, which Waymo won. Is this a company we should trust with little oversight from cities, states, or the federal government? Of course not!

On the other hand, we can’t lose sight of the fact that human beings are, by and large, incredibly bad at driving while maintaining an equally incredible self belief that they are incredibly good at driving. That’s a dangerous combination, especially when you mix it with drugs, alcohol and digital distractions. I don’t doubt that self-driving cars need more regulation. Even best-in-class operations like Waymo need guidance from the top. The technology still has a long way to go. I also don’t doubt that a self-driving car future, in which robo-cars drive in their own lanes unbothered by our human weaknesses and unpredictable behavior, will be safer for all of us.


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