It has happened.
A vehicle being tested by Uber on public roads in autonomous mode struck and killed a pedestrian, even with a safety driver behind the wheel who presumably could override the robotic controls.
This is exactly the kind of incident the industry feared most but didn't want to talk about.
In lobbying Congress and NHTSA for wide latitude to test autonomous vehicles on public roads nationwide — with and without safety drivers, with and without manual controls — automakers, suppliers and tech companies have sought to assure the public of two things: that the robotic systems they've developed are already far superior to the capabilities of a human driver and that without large-scale public testing, they won't be able to make the systems even more superior.
What they haven't been willing to say out loud is what we now know: that in the process of pursuing this societal good, some innocent lives may be sacrificed.
It might not be a soldier who pledged his life in defense of his country or a cancer patient willing to risk his life on an experimental drug.
It might be just a woman crossing the street on a Sunday night.
In Washington, five senators are enduring a lot of heat from colleagues and industry lobbyists for stalling legislation that would unleash widespread testing of self-driving and even driverless vehicles. Proponents of the bill want it passed unanimously in the Senate without debate, but the five senators are holding out for a more deliberate course and a harder look at the risks raised by promising, but unproven, technology.
Meanwhile, a broad coalition of consumer and safety groups are clamoring for the Department of Transportation to put more teeth into its voluntary industry guidelines for autonomous vehicle development, which rely more on recommendations than requirements.
Along with these safety advocates, we fully acknowledge the long-term potential of autonomous systems to reduce highway deaths. But there's clear disagreement on how and how quickly to get there, and that debate shouldn't be short-circuited, especially considering last week's accident.
If it takes time to figure how to develop and test vehicles responsibly without posing an undue risk to the public, that's time well spent.