The auto industry is asking an awful lot from a skeptical public to accept the inevitability of a future with safe autonomous vehicles.
So when insiders from Uber's Advanced Technologies Group revealed that potentially lifesaving software was disabled in the vehicle that last year killed an Arizona pedestrian — because it triggered harsh braking too often at a time the company was trying to show progress to investors — it raised more questions of whether public testing is ready for prime time, and whether these vehicles can be trusted.
It also raises more questions about the safety culture at Uber, which was found to not be criminally liable in the death of Elaine Herzberg.
One of the sources familiar with the inner workings of Uber told us (Nov. 18, "Disabled fail-safe at issue in Uber crash") that the developers faced "unrealistic timelines and internally driven pressure" and that the problem is not unique to the company, which felt pressure to keep pace with rival Waymo.
What is a consumer supposed to make of this?
The software deactivation was a factor in Herzberg's death, but so was the inattentiveness of the vehicle's safety driver, among other things. But we hope this alarms the companies and their decision-makers who are working to bring this technology to fruition and test it out in real-world conditions on public roads.
This is an opportunity for them to ensure they keep tight controls on their public rollouts and dial back their timelines if necessary.
And the federal and state governments have the unenviable but necessary task of ensuring that people aren't exposed to unnecessary risk in what is essentially a beta test of unproven technology.
The National Transportation Safety Board, for its part, has recommended tighter oversight of companies conducting public tests after investigating the Uber case. Uber said it regrets the crash and will implement NTSB recommendations.
The bottom line: A self-driving car is only as good as the software that runs it and the people who can intervene when facing the unexpected.
Don't let there be another Elaine Herzberg.