By Jordan Smith
Will Self-Driving Cars “Choose” to Kill Cyclists?
In March, a self-driving car struck and killed a woman walking her bike across a road in Tempe, Arizona. The car, operated by the ride-hailing company Uber, had a test driver behind the wheel. But according to police, the driver was looking down at her phone until moments before impact, and didn’t hit the brakes until just after the crash.
Elaine Herzberg, 49, was struck at nearly 40 mph. She later died of her injuries at the hospital, becoming the first known pedestrian death caused by an autonomous vehicle.
According to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board, the car’s sensors detected Herzberg about six seconds before the crash. But it had trouble recognizing her as a person, at first classifying her as an “unknown object,” then as another vehicle, and finally as a bicycle.
The self-driving system would treat each of these scenarios differently, with different expectations for a how to avoid a crash. A little more than a second before impact, the system decided that the car should simply stop. However, Uber had disabled the emergency brakes to prevent sudden stops during test drives, instead relying on human drivers to take over as needed—a risk that, in this case, proved fatal.
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