National Post (Latest Edition)


Oversight in order for new technology

- Lorraine soMMerfeLd

Acouple of high-profile crashes — and fatalities — have plunged consumer trust in autonomous vehicles, a new American Automobile Associatio­n (AAA) study says. The new study says 73 per cent would be too afraid to be in a driverless vehicle. That number had been 63 per cent just a few months ago, down from 78 per cent last year, which indicated a direction the autonomous proponents liked to see.


Maybe it’s a result of what I do for a living, but I’ve long known there is no way I want autonomous cars practising on public roads. Whether it’s a semi-autonomous Uber with an inattentiv­e driver at the wheel killing a pedestrian, or a Tesla owner hitting autopilot and killing himself (or did the car kill him? Hmm. Nice debate topic), it’s one thing when those inside the car are knowingly at risk, and another when other road sharers have no say in the matter.

The cars aren’t ready, other road users aren’t ready and our legal system isn’t ready. Numbers had been headed the other way, people gaining confidence as headlines were dominated by the dawning of a new age — an age of being piloted around in a vehicle, the driver confidentl­y sleeping or otherwise ignoring, well, driving. Many of us squawked away about how misleading this all was, but it’s hard to fight romantic notions, though relatively easy to swing for the fences when nobody is telling you to back up your claims.

Many politician­s, especially in the U.S., are desperate to appear forwardthi­nking by inviting untested test pilots out of their protected enclosures and into the wilds of public thoroughfa­res. There’s forwardthi­nking and then there is uninformed risk-taking. Allowing automakers and software designers to decide when it’s safe to treat the rest of us like guinea pigs is like letting prisoners decide their own parole dates.

It’s hard to turn away from a midway of promises, and companies like Tesla boldly calling something “autopilot” is a totally irresponsi­ble way to steer the buying public to new technologi­es.

On the way to populating our roads with these vehicular wonders, things got real. The same survey revealed that 63 per cent of those asked would feel unsafe sharing the road as a pedestrian or cyclist with autonomous vehicles on the loose. I can’t believe it’s only 63.

I don’t blame them. We’re not there yet, and won’t be for a while.

The bandwagoni­ng about autonomous vehicles is always based on safety and congestion. Driver error loads our roads with fatalities, and automakers have responded with some of the most amazing safety features, even on entry-level cars. Airbags have saved thousands of lives, and front collision avoidance (auto or assisted braking), traction control and lane-departure warnings have made it far more likely you will walk away from a collision, if not avoid it all together. The final frontier is to remove the driver who is still making the errors and, the thinking goes, the car will make far better decisions and remove fatalities from our roads totally.

One of the most revealing things the AAA study unearthed is that millennial­s, those who so eagerly embrace the technology that gives boomers and even GenXers pause, have been the most upended by the fatal lapses. Those too scared to get in a fully autonomous vehicle went to 64 per cent in last week’s survey from 49 per cent last year. That’s the biggest jump, and it’s the most receptive generation. Fatal errors by autonomous vehicles look far different on real streets than they do on a computer screen. Even a generation raised on computer games knows there is no reset button in the real world.

Even as cars get safer, many urban areas continue to struggle with rising injury and fatality rates of pedestrian­s and cyclists. The Greater Toronto Area is on course for a second record-breaking


statistic of the worst kind: pedestrian fatalities. Even with the introducti­on of concepts like Vision Zero — a program to save pedestrian lives — gaining adherents around the world, our city streets remain dangerous places, especially for children and the elderly. Any politician who bleats on that there is a war on cars whenever we try to make our roads safer for all users should be bounced out of office.

Speed is always a factor, but so is the fact that sales of enormous vehicles are soaring. Massive SUVs may keep those on the inside safer, but it is to the detriment of everybody else on the road. Distracted drivers — those damned phones — are more prevalent than impaired drivers, and both groups remain a stubborn problem for law enforcemen­t as well as the rest of us. Fully autonomous vehicles would technicall­y remove driver error and these conditions, but fully autonomous vehicles are too far in the future for those designing and building them to keep insisting that drivers can kick back and let the car do the work.

That spike in fear revealed by the AAA study is warranted. Highlighti­ng deaths caused by improper use of automated features is not sensationa­list reporting. Starting a drum roll for technology that is too untested to be safe is.

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