It’s Time to (Slightly) Panic About Self-Driving Cars

They’re going the wrong way down one-way streets, for starters

By Kirk Miller

 
Self Driving Car
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04 October 2016

On the night of Sept. 26, an Uber driver in Pittsburgh — where the company has launched an ambitious beta program for self-driving cars — noticed an autonomous Ford Fusion going the wrong way down a one-way street near the University of Pittsburgh. The car then backed up and drove away.

The driver, Nathan Stachelek, took a video and posted on Facebook.

As Quartz noted, this incident follows some other recent self-driving scrapes, including a Google car hitting a public bus (and a more recent Google car accident) and a Tesla Model S autopilot accident that killed the (non-)driver. Another Pittsburgh Uber driver recently noticed a self-driving car pulled over with its hazard lights on and another car right behind it, suggesting at least a fender bender.

So the tech isn't quite flawless yet. More worrisome, though, is the fact that this wrong-way incident happened on a street already carefully mapped by Uber engineers (that said, the city’s police force has noted there have been no reported incidents involving Uber’s self-driving cars).

Currently, Uber in Pittsburgh is placing two “back-up” human controllers (a safety driver and an engineer) in their autonomous autos. Additionally, the approved area includes only an office park with some access to public roads, and the cars must stay below 35 MPH. So, in Pittsburgh at least, they're starting slow and steady.

But elsewhere, the outlook could prove grimmer: California just approved unmanned autonomous vehicle testing, meaning nobody has to be behind the wheel. 

While we can't expect self-driving cars to be perfect, the real issue might be that regulations aren’t uniform across states: Pennsylvania, for example, doesn’t have any in place. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says he hopes automakers will comply with (yep) voluntary guidelines his department released late last month. His office also noted that self-driving cars are changing so quickly, regulations “would be outdated before you ever got your regulation out.”

On a positive note ... these incidents might lead to additional safety measures, further testing and less willingess for passengers to engage in more prurient matters.

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