Autonomous vehicle technology is mind-blowing. The fact that cameras, mapping, lasers and computers affixed to traveling vessels can see road lines and other vehicles and then drive is absolutely remarkable.
The fact that these revolutionary cars can speed up and slow down on their own and follow inputted navigational directions is a transcendent breakthrough. But this technology is little more than an aid right now — we cannot count on it to be responsible for us.
An Apple engineer in Mountain View, California, lost his life as a byproduct of this false comfort two years ago. Walter Huang, 38, had repeatedly noticed his Tesla Model X kept darting toward a damaged median barrier on U.S. Highway 101, when the car was in self-drive mode.
Huang had expressed this to some family members, but he was prepared for it and corrected the maneuver any time he passed that fateful spot. Huang also took his sleek SUV to his Tesla dealer, but they could not replicate the defect.
On March 23, 2018, Huang had switched to the auto-pilot system. He presumably had forgotten he was on the approach to this trouble zone on Highway 101, between San Jose and San Francisco. Records show that his phone was streaming a video game. Disaster struck.
Huang’s Tesla steered into and then hit the compromised wall. The impact was dashboard-deep. Game over. Huang paid the price for the complacency that brilliant technology causes.
Tesla said that the crash was so severe because the median wall — designed to diminish such an impact — had damage from an earlier crash. The California Department of Transportation said that maintenance on that wall had been scheduled, but not completed. The automaker did not account for why the Model X decided to steer into the wall in the first place.
A self-driving Uber hit and killed pedestrian Elaine Herzeberg in Tempe, Arizona — this was also in March 2018. The U.S. National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) ruled this crash, too, happened because the vehicle’s operator was distracted and because Uber’s corporate governance of this autonomous project was lacking. In a flavor of mea culpa, the NTSB said that even the government did not oversee such endeavors enough.
A March 2019 crash took the life of 50-year-old Jeremy Baren Banner when his Tesla drove under a tractor trailer, shearing Banner’s Model 3’s roof off. Banner had just taken his hands off the wheel six seconds before the impact, and the NTSB said Banner entered autopilot mode just ten seconds beforehand. Tesla’s system did not detect that Banner had let go of the wheel. He was driving 68 miles per hour in a 55 speed zone.
We don’t know why all three of these fatal instances happened to take place in the third month of the year. But we can safely assume we need to beware behind the wheel on more days than just the Ides of March.
In a hearing on Capitol Hill last Tuesday, a bipartisan cadre of lawmakers urged that the United States needs to fund autonomous vehicles more steadfastly. The fear is that the U.S. will fall behind China and other countries in this realm. More funding and emphasis are not bad things, but hasty implementation can produce awful results.
Many tragedies result from a series of errors, not just one idiot proverbially sitting on the candy-red button. Huang should have been watching where he was driving. The Uber driver should have also. Banner might have picked the wrong time to test his Tesla’s autopilot system at that speed. Tesla needs to beef up the flaws in its miraculous vehicles. Uber and other outfits need to not let convenience breed malfeasance. And the government needs to better balance innovation with safety — and the DOT needs to repair the roads fully.
As we have said in this space many times, including in last week’s post about the forgotten dangers of driving: We all help each other in this community on the roads. Despite the aids of technology, we cannot lessen our vigilance and responsibility behind the wheel. Partially autonomous cars are here and could be a Godsend. Fully autonomous vehicles are still en route, and we shouldn’t act as if they have arrived.
Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com