Who’s Driving This Thing?

A tourist arrives in a new city. He pulls out his phone and hails an Uber to get him to his hotel. The car arrives, driven by no one. Does the tourist get on? Would you?

Uber’s recent decision to use self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh is highly controversial. The company did not choose Pennsylvania because it has laws allowing autonomous vehicles. Uber chose Pennsylvania because its laws were silent on the subject. Pennsylvania legislators may have thought the subject didn’t require their attention. Their reward for staying silent is to see their state become a testing ground for a technology that some critics contend is not ready for prime time. One former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said, in reference to Uber’s decision, that the company was “making the commuters the guinea pigs.”

The truth is that driving is a relatively unsafe activity. Traffic deaths are on the rise. The vast majority of those car and truck accident fatalities are the result of driver error. Self-driving vehicles may well be the best hope for making American roads safer for everyone. The question is, what is the best way to make the transition from current vehicles to self-driving vehicles?

Getting self-driving vehicles on the roads through companies like Uber, rather than through government action, has a number of advantages. If an autonomous vehicle provides an economic advantage, businesses will push to maximize those advantages. The key to that is to make sure they bear the costs of injuries and deaths caused by unsafe technology.

It is far from clear that Uber is held properly responsible for the damage it causes. Early signs are that the business model does its best to insulate owners from the actions of its drivers. How that will work when there is no driver is not clear. Barring fast action from Pennsylvania legislators, Pittsburgh will soon become a testing ground for issues of safety and liability in car accidents featuring driverless cars. Hopefully consumers aren’t the ones who get the short end of the stick.

Source: The Washington Post, “For some safety experts, Uber’s self-driving taxi test isn’t something to hail,” by Elizabeth Dwoskin and Brian Fung, 11 September 2016

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