It was inevitable: A self-driving car killed a pedestrian.
The first such fatality, involving an Uber vehicle in Tempe, Ariz., has predictably prompted calls to suspend all testing of autonomous vehicles across the nation, including California’s program slated to start next month.
Whoa, let’s not overreact. Yes, the death is a tragedy. But the response should be reasoned, not hysterical.
Early comments from Tempe’s police chief suggest the victim had suddenly stepped into traffic and the result might have been the same if the car had a driver at the controls. That said, the accident highlights the need for tough national safety and review standards for driverless cars, rather than the more hands-off approach in Arizona and currently being considered by Congress.
The reality is that the more miles traveled, whether by autonomous vehicles or those with drivers, the greater the likelihood of accidents and fatalities.
On one hand, there’s reason to believe that driverless cars could actually be safer because they do not depend on operators who can easily be distracted by texting, crying babies or the radio controls, or impaired by alcohol, marijuana or lack of sleep.
On the other hand, self-driving-car technology is complex and still imperfect. That’s why Sunday’s accident merits the ongoing review by federal and Arizona authorities.
But no government agency should stall this critical technology development every time there’s a mishap. That major step should only be taken with statistical justification.
Right now, the data is still thin. Federal statistics for 2016 show 1.18 traffic-related fatal accidents per 100 million miles traveled in 2016, according to the New York Times. In comparison, vehicles of two of the major self-driving car developers, Waymo and Uber, have traveled less than 10 million miles since 2009.
More testing and more data on autonomous vehicles is needed before meaningful conclusions can be drawn.
That said, the fledgling industry should not be given a free pass to work out the kinks. As it puts its cars on public roads, they should meet the same safety standards as traditional vehicles.
That’s why U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and four other senators have some legitimate concerns about a bill passed by the House and pending in the Senate that would set national standards for driverless cars, supplanting the current patchwork of state rules.
The new standards are supposed to be interim until more data is available. But there is no requirement for updating them, leaving the possibility that they might never be updated. That’s unacceptable.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS