Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

An Unforeseen Future

On a late evening in March 2018, a 49-year-old woman was struck by an SUV in Tempe, Arizona. It was fatal. Although every loss of life is a tragedy, pedestrian deaths by car are relatively common in America—about 6,000 a year. The incident on the Tempe road, however, was the first of its kind.

The person who sat behind the wheel of the SUV didn’t have her hands on the wheel, her feet weren’t on the pedals, and her eyes weren’t even on the road.

Why?

The vehicle was self-driving. The human was only on board to act in emergencies.

Naturally, the accident blew up on the news.

Although most of the world looked forward to autonomous cars, the news coverage turned everyone’s optimism to fear.

A similar incident from over a 100 years ago sparked a similar scare.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the automobile made its introduction. A practical manure-free substitute for horses.

To us, automobiles are synonyms for freedom and speed. But back then, some cars had a top speed of only four miles per hour.

Which seems harmless enough. But in 1896, Londoner Bridget Driscoll was fatally hit by a car that was moving at the speed of a leisurely jogger. 

She walked off the sidewalk into the road and froze in place at the sight of the vehicle. The driver tried to swerve out of the way, but was too late.

The driver was taken to court. After six hours of deliberation, the jury reached a verdict: accidental death.

The first pedestrian death in the US didn’t go by as calmly.

Before being called an accident, the incident was seen as a murder. To the Americans, someone was at fault.

But nobody knew who to point the finger at. The pedestrian, the driver, or the vehicle?

Which is precisely what happened after the fatal crash in Tempe, Arizona. 

This particular accident, however, was different. The back-up driver of the autonomous car wasn’t watching the road, but a video on her phone.

She was negligent.

Or was she? After all, the car was self-driving. It had driven around the country before without incident. Why couldn’t she trust that the car would drive safely again?

To complicate matters more, the autonomous car did actually spot something on the road. The system simply didn’t recognize it as human.

Which is accurate. The woman was walking across the road holding a bicycle with bags hanging off its handles.

The software that runs the self-driving car didn’t say how to handle that scenario.

And that’s the issue.

You can never prepare for all of life’s surprises. Especially not when the rules of the road are ambiguous. 

Consider the right of way. Who has the right to go first changes depends on the circumstances. And ultimately on the common sense of the driver.

Autonomous cars only have the sense we teach them.

Let’s park the question of whether we can teach cars to drive better than humans.

More interesting is how self-driving cars will change our behaviour.

When the automobile was introduced, we thought everything would stay the same. The only difference would be that people who rode a large horse and carriage would switch over to a small car, so that the cities could finally be free of stink and noise. 

The automobile obviously had far greater consequences.

And the self-driving car will too.

The autonomous car won’t simply replace the human driver, it’ll change the way we live.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach