Should We Ban Autonomous Vehicles?

Automotive pedestrian safety.

Posted Mar 29, 2018

For many years during the brief drive to my office in downtown Mt. Clemens, I would daily pass an elementary school near the train tracks on Cass Avenue.  The school sits within eyeshot of the old train station where Thomas Edison once learned to operate the telegraph.  The legend goes that Edison one day saved the station master’s child from being run over by a train, and in appreciation he taught the young Edison how to work the telegraph. 

Each day as I passed the school I would observe the teacher who served as the cross-walk  guard waved to every car and made eye contact with each driver as they passed.  In the mornings the traffic was heavy and I never understood how this woman, rain or shine, could so vigorously wave to so many drivers.  I had the thought she was doing this to remind the drivers to slow down because children had to cross the road and there were no traffic lights or even a designated cross walk for the charter school students.  Last week a driver crashed into the teacher and seriously injured her.  I was told by several people she is now on life-support until her organs can be harvested in order to give others a chance at life.  After she was struck by the mini-van and taken to the hospital, the county sheriffs orchestrated the children’s cross-walk that day.  I never thought I would be so sad to not see this dedicated teacher waving as I pass by the school.

About 10 years ago I performed the annual function of taking my daughter to a daddy’s daughter dance at our health club.  My daughter enjoyed the attention, and it was always an event we both anticipated with joy.  One of the activities at the dance was an opportunity to have our photographs taken.  I was deeply saddened to hear that at the previous year’s dance a father and daughter had their pictures taken together, and a few days later the daughter was killed when a car struck her while backing out of the driveway.  The picture taken at the daddy daughter’s dance was her last.

Last week a pedestrian was killed by an autonomous vehicle in Arizona.  This event reinforced for many American’s their fear of this new technology and their ready bias to scratch this new technology.  I ask if this is rational.

The truth is that every time we enter the roadway we are venturing onto a battleground that takes more lives and injuries more than the Vietnam War.  In World War II Churchill had to make the soul-crushing decision to sacrifice the Calais garrison of 3,000 lightly armed British riflemen on order to hold off 25,000 advancing Nazi troops.  Members of the 51st Highland division fought for four days before falling, allowing the 300,000 soldiers trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk to be evacuated. 

Similar in scope of tragedy, horrific and sickening sacrifices will have to be made during the transition and development of autonomous vehicles.  Each time there is an accident with the autonomous vehicle that results in injuries or deaths, there will be a public outcry to ban them.  But the alternative is far less thinkable, i.e. to continue on the same path of mass carnage we have traveled for the past 126 years.  Estimates are given of around 4 million motor vehicle fatalities in the United States from 1899 to present.

Perhaps there are better ways to limit the number of injuries and fatalities during this development phase, and every precaution clearly needs to be taken.  But in all reality, I expect no matter how many precautions are taken, there will still be some catastrophic failures.  But sadly, we must not stop because of these losses.  If touched directly by such a failure I am certain I would not be able to write these words as easily, but in such a case I would hope someone else would.