The first driverless cars will be rented, not sold—that has major implications.
Crash reports could provide an early warning system
At least one state has taken an important step in this direction: California requires companies testing driverless cars to report every time their vehicle gets into a crash. This requirement has produced a steady stream of data about how companies in California are performing.
But most states lack rules like this—in part because competition to attract self-driving car companies has led to a race to the bottom in state safety rules. That includes Arizona and Pennsylvania, two states where Uber has done extensive testing.
In these states, we don’t hear about driverless car crashes unless someone involved tells the media about it. This means that we tend to hear about the most spectacular crashes—like a 2017 incident in Tempe where an Uber vehicle rolled over. But the public has no way of knowing how many other crashes might have occurred that didn’t attract the attention of the media.
For example, last month an Uber car slammed into the side of another vehicle in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The driver of the other car talked to a Pittsburgh television station, which did a segment on the evening news. We noticed that story and did our own reporting on the incident.
It wasn’t the biggest story by any means. No one was seriously injured, and it looks like Uber may not have been legally at fault. But if the other driver, Jessica McLemore, hadn’t told local television stations about it, it’s likely the public wouldn’t have heard about it at all.
Were there other minor crashes in the months before Herzberg’s death—crashes that could have hinted at problems with Uber’s self-driving technology? No one outside of Uber headquarters knows, and that’s a problem. A nationwide reporting system like the one in California would make sure the public knows every time a crash like this occurs. And while California’s system is better than nothing, there’s a lot of room for improvement.
Self-driving car companies gather data about every minute a self-driving car is on the road—data they later load into simulators to test future iterations of the driverless car software. An improved reporting system could require companies to release a lot more data—including video and sensor data—from the seconds before every crash. Independent experts could then examine the data and decide for themselves whether a self-driving vehicle’s behavior contributed to a crash.
We saw how significant this kind of disclosure can be in the Herzberg case. Before the release of the video, we heard from Tempe police chief Sylvia Moir that Uber was “likely” not at fault because Herzberg “came from the shadows right into the roadway.” Once the video was released, however, it became clear that this description was misleading. Even if cameras hadn’t picked Herzberg up, the car’s lidar and radar sensors clearly should have. The debate over Herzberg’s death became far more productive once the public had a chance to see the evidence first-hand.