On March 19, the first pedestrian death caused by an autonomous vehicle (AV) was recorded.

The woman was killed by a self-driving Uber car early Monday morning in Tempe, Arizona. In response, Uber pulled all of its self-driving cars from public roads in the state as well as in the cities of San Francisco, Toronto and Pittsburgh.

Over the next few days, skeptics of AVs will be saying “we told you so” and others will be demanding that they be taken off the streets for good.

If you’re someone that’s looking forward to this technology, the near future may sound kind of bleak.

Trust me, it’s not the end of the AV. This is especially true when you put it into perspective.

AV vs Non-AV

It’s been 30 years since the first semi-autonomous automobiles hit the streets in very-limited experiments. It’s also been more than 20 years since Navlab 5 made its “no hands across America” trip from Pennsylvania to California. Over the last decade, dozens of AVs have hit the road without a single pedestrian casualty.

Which brings us back to Tempe, where AVs were first put on the road in February 2017. That means they went for more than one year without a fatal incident.

That’s not bad, compared to the fact that 6,000 pedestrians in the U.S. alone were killed by vehicles being driven by people. That’s an average of approximately 16 people killed per day. Yet, that statistic doesn’t make nationwide headlines, or worldwide in the case of the Uber vehicle, that people talk about.

The truth is, it probably wasn’t a case of “if” but “when” something like this would happen.

Not that there haven’t been fatalities linked to AVs. The first fatality linked to the auto-driver mode was in 2016, when a driver died when his vehicle couldn’t distinguish the back of a white tractor trailer from the sky. There have also been nonfatal crashes, with one in Tempe last year.

Safer roads

It’s a given that many people are going to have some misgivings about and resistance to AVs hitting the road. Some people resent the idea that their children may not experience the freedom of driving like they did, others may think it’s the preclude to robots taking over society and some just don’t like technology no matter how beneficial it is.

What are the benefits?

First and foremost, despite the pedestrian death in Arizona, AVs will still save many lives on the road. Those lives could be saved by making it so that a person who has spent the night partying won’t operate a vehicle on the drive home. The AVs could save lives by compensating for young drivers who are inexperienced on the road. They could prevent people from getting lost and navigating areas they don’t know. They could even cut down the number of incidents where people hit large animals.

All of those things play major roles in the huge death toll on American roads.

Yes, bad things happen. But, that’s unfortunately the price paid for progress sometimes. One life lost is too many, but again, that doesn’t mean progress should be stopped. This is especially true if the end result will save lives in the long term.

It’s a sad loss for the woman’s family. Hopefully, they will get some restitution for what has happened. But, her death is not a reason to say “stop!”

What is going to happen is that the AV industry is going to re-examine their vehicles guidance and sensor systems to see what went wrong. They’re going to do their best to make sure it never happens again because they’re heavily invested in it.

Roads not ready

Right now, U.S. infrastructure is not ready for the AVs en masse. The change that is needed is on par with those made when cars replaced horses in the last century. Regulations and uniform standards will have to be made and in a country as vast and disorderly as the U.S., it will be quite a task.

Chances are, these efforts in the U.S. will be limited to larger cities and wealthier states at first. Unless the federal government steps in early, there’s not going to be a nationwide effort to get the roads ready and state-level projects will be out of step with each other.

Many Americans will be watching cities like New York and Seattle develop the technology. From there, and with a younger population becoming dominant, those states will eventually face a demand to become AV friendly from their own citizens. That demand is something many states cannot fill by their own means, which means the federal government will have to step in.

From there, the roads will leap forward. Maybe even leading to the creation of a “smart road” network like Sweden is testing.

According to Bloomberg, the biggest obstacle to making the roads read for AV is the lack of funds. That’s followed by the capacity to handle pilot programs and unclearness as to what issues would require city action.

Falling behind

Right now, the AVs are hitting the streets in other parts of the world. Singapore saw autonomous taxis hit its streets in 2016. While Singapore’s AVs are limited in range, they have been successful so far. By 2022, driverless vehicles as part of the daily commute in three more Singaporean towns.

The country most ready for AVs, though, is the Netherlands, according to KPMG’s index. The country is ranked 1st in infrastructure, 2nd in consumer acceptance, 3rd in policy and legislation and 4th in technology and innovation.

Behind those two, according the the same report, is the United States. Not a bad place to be, but, the chances are likely that it will slip down the list, especially with geographically smaller and politically more cohesive countries begin developing their own systems.

It’s likely that those countries will see fatalities as well.

Because, the truth is, it will probably happen again. But, losses are an unfortunate fact of life when it comes to technology that transports people. There were many losses in the development of steam engines, automobiles, planes and spaceflight. Those industries (well those that still exist) still see casualties. It doesn’t stop them though. They, like the AV developers, will look at what went wrong and come back again, better than before, or be replaced.

One day, we’ll get there and our children, parents and other loved ones will be safer because of it.

Weirdo who writes futurist-tinged columns about technology and science’s impact on society by night. Unfortunately, 2020 compels me to do politics too.

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