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Uber recently unveiled their self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. The cars are capable of driving passengers to their destination unassisted. However, in each of these cars, an Uber engineer is in the driver’s seat, ready to take control of the car if necessary.
Self-driving technology is still in the testing stages and has a long way to go before it is ready for the public. Some reports speculate that it might take decades to get to that point. A reporter for WESA, Megan Harris, had the chance to ride in one of the new Uber cars. “Uber is like the Wright brothers testing the world’s first airplane on the coast of North Carolina,” she said. “Pretty cool. But not terribly practical yet.”
Though the technology is exciting, the ride is anything but. The Uber cars rarely go more than one or two miles over the speed limit and they don’t perform any driving maneuver that could be deemed as even slightly risky, such as turning right on a red light. Though the car does drive on its own, the engineer sitting in the driver’s seat can take control of the wheel and maneuver the car manually at any time. The car can arrive safely at a destination, but it is up to the person sitting in the driver’s seat to safely park the car, as the self-driving capabilities do not currently have that ability.
This technology was unveiled in Pittsburgh because the roads are so difficult to navigate. If this technology is going to succeed, the cars need to be able to navigate unsafe or difficult road conditions. Director of Uber Advanced Technologies Center Raffi Krikorian thinks the roads of Pittsburgh provide good testing conditions. “We actually think of Pittsburgh as the double black diamond of driving,” he said, “If we can really tackle Pittsburgh, [then] we have a better chance of tackling most other cities around the world.”
The goal of all of this self-driven technology is to increase safety while on the road. And it’s easy to see the logic. Many car accidents are caused by human error. A driver who is distracted, tired or even drunk is a great danger on the road. Cars that can operate without the assistance of a driver remove that risk, but at what cost?
As we saw last May, in the instance of the man who died as a result of his Tesla Model S crashing into the side of a tractor trailer while using his autopilot function, there is an inherent danger about feeling too complacent on the road. If a driver does not feel that they need to pay attention because the car will do the driving for them, that can inadvertently lead to an accident that is just as severe as those caused by human error.
Moreover, the advent of self-driving technology can also create complicated legal questions. For instance, if you are hit by a self-driven car, is the driver still responsible for the accident when they are not actually operating the car? What role does the car’s manufacturer have in the accident? Could the crash have been avoided if the car was not using this self-driving technology? It will be years before fully self-driven cars are available to the public, but these are questions we should be asking ourselves now.