Editor’s note: Several interviews for this story were conducted before Uber’s fatal accident in Tempe, Ariz. A previous draft of this story was revised to include information about the accidents without that distinction made clear. This version has been updated to reflect that those interviews were conducted before the accident.
It's time to curb the enthusiasm around self-driving cars.
After an Uber test vehicle operating in autonomous mode struck and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Ariz., on the night of March 18, manufacturers, suppliers and regulators have been forced to re-evaluate the development of self-driving technology. To make these vehicles and their testing programs safe, companies need to recognize their limits and respond accordingly, experts say.
"This incident was uncomfortably soon in the history of automated driving," wrote Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who specializes in self-driving vehicles, in response to the crash. "Automated driving is a challenging work in progress that may never be perfected."
While core autonomous vehicle technology, such as cameras, radar, lidar and decision-making algorithms, has become much more sophisticated, test vehicles still struggle with basic maneuvers that human drivers would easily handle. Often these situations involve predicting and responding to the actions of human-driven vehicles and pedestrians, meaning human lives are at stake.
"Most [self-driving] cars just safely follow the rules," said Alexander Mankowsky, an expert in future r&d at Daimler, in an interview conducted prior to Uber's fatal accident.
Cars need to learn how to interpret situations where they need to cooperate with other drivers and pedestrians, Mankowsky said. Otherwise, they will never reach 100 percent effectiveness.
The industry kicked off 2018 at CES touting the arrival of self-driving cars in the near term. However, some companies have taken a step back after the worst-case scenario has been realized.
Uber suspended its autonomous vehicle pilot programs in Arizona, California, Pittsburgh and Toronto after the fatality. Toyota Motor Corp. stopped its supervised self-driving tests, and Aptiv's autonomous driving subsidiary, NuTonomy, suspended its pilot in Boston following demands from local regulators. Hyundai told Reuters it is now "cautious about mass producing self-driving cars."
These measured responses, in addition to potential shifts in regulatory and consumer sentiment, are likely to affect timelines to deploy driverless vehicles within the next three years.
"What remains clear is that the corner cases will take a long time to solve," wrote Barclays analyst Brian Johnson in a note to investors.
As manufacturers sober up after the Uber fatality, here are the questions and concerns they face in making these cars a safe reality.