Last month, for the first time, a pedestrian was killed in an accident involving a self-driving car. A sports-utility vehicle controlled by an autonomous algorithm hit a woman who was crossing the road in Tempe, Arizona. The safety driver inside the vehicle was unable to prevent the crash.
Although such accidents are rare, their incidence could rise as more vehicles that are capable of driving without human intervention are tested on public roads. In the past year, several countries have passed laws to pave the way for such trials. For example, Singapore modified its Road Traffic Act to permit autonomous cars to drive in designated areas. The Swedish Transport Agency allowed driverless buses to run in northern Stockholm. In the United States, the House of Representatives passed the SELF DRIVE Act to harmonize laws across various states. Similar action is pending in the US Senate, where a vote to support the AV START Act would further liberalize trials of driverless vehicles.
Policymakers are enthusiastic about the potential of autonomous vehicles to reduce road congestion, air pollution and road-traffic accidents Cheap ride-hailing services could reduce the number of privately owned cars. Machine intelligence can make driving more fuel-efficient, cutting emissions. Autonomous cars could help to save the 1.25 million lives worldwide that are lost each year through crashes, many of which are caused by human error.
Governments want to pass laws to make this happen (see ‘Road to autonomy’). But they are doing so by temporarily freeing developers of self-driving cars from meeting certain transport safety rules. These rules include the requirement that a human operator be inside the vehicle, that vehicles have safety features such as a steering wheel, brakes and a mirror, and that the features are functional at all times. Some developers are maintaining these aspects, but they are not obliged to do so. There is no guarantee that autonomous vehicles will match the safety standards of current cars.