First pedestrian fatality highlights danger of self-driving vehicles
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First pedestrian fatality highlights danger of self-driving vehicles

March saw the tragic first occasion of a pedestrian killed by an autonomous vehicle. A woman stepped out suddenly in front of an Uber self-driving car, and was mown down.

Arizona, Tempe, police chief Sylvia Moir told the press that: “it’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode. The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them.” Neither the car’s automated systems, nor the human driver who acts as “backup” if hands are suddenly needed on the wheel, noticed the pedestrian until it was too late.

Autonomous driving specialist Aptiv has seen its share price rise by 35% in the last 12 months

graph 2303 aptiv

SOURCE: Yahoo Finance

Bloomberg cites “experts” as believing that the car’s sensors did see the woman in question, but failed to register her as a human being. Matthew Johnson-Robertson, engineering professor at the University of Michigan and collaborator with Ford Motor Co. on autonomous vehicle research told the publication:

“The real challenge is you need to distinguish the difference between people and cars and bushes and paper bags and anything else that could be out in the road environment. The detection algorithms may have failed to detect the person or distinguish her from a bush.”

It’s also true that the Uber in question was, occasionally, breaking speed limits. In a run of zones with limits of either 35mph or 40mph, the car was cruising consistently at 38mph. Johnson-Robertson thinks that this reflects a faulty decision making process, which demonstrates how far artificial intelligence has to go before it can drive us around safely. He told Bloomberg:

“I live in Ann Arbor, a college town. So on football weekends, when there’s a bunch of drunk college kids, I drive at a lower speed. Those are the kind of human decisions we make to anticipate a situation, and that’s hard with autonomous cars. We’re not there yet.”

With autonomous vehicles predicted to eliminate a massive 94% of all road accidents, which are caused by human error, March’s tragic news demonstrates two things: first, that it still has a long way to go. And second, that getting there – and eliminating the needless loss of life on our roads whatever its cause – is undoubtedly a worthwhile task.


Dominion holds Aptiv and other companies involved in the autonomous vehicle industry in its Global Trends Managed Fund. It does not hold Uber in any portfolio.


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