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Who’s afraid of Uber’s driverless car test?

Transportation safety officials, at least some of them.

Uber

Uber’s decision to bring self-driving taxis to the streets of Pittsburgh this week is raising alarms among a swath of safety experts who say that the technology is not nearly ready for prime time.

The unprecedented experiment will launch even though Pennsylvania has yet to pass basic laws that permit the testing of self-driving cars or rules that would govern what would happen in a crash. Uber is also not required to pass along any data from its vehicles to regulators.

Meanwhile, researchers note, autonomous cars have been thrown off by bridges, a particular problem in Pittsburgh, which has more bridges than any other major U.S. city.

“They are essentially making the commuters the guinea pigs,” said Joan Claybrook, a consumer-protection advocate and former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Of course there are going to be crashes. You can do the exact same tests without having average citizens in your car.”

But advocates of autonomous vehicles say that the technology might never have happened if companies had to wait for governments to pass rules first. With nearly 37,000 Americans dying in car crashes every year, largely because of driver errors, technologists have stressed the critical need to push forward on testing driverless cars on public roads.

[…]

[Roger Cohen, policy director for Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation] and Bryant Walker Smith, an autonomous-vehicle expert at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, are both comfortable with the tests because of the safety drivers. Still, they acknowledged that doesn’t mean it will be collision-free. “You’re not going to have perfection. There is going to be trial and error, and it’s not going to be problem free,” Cohen said.

Even so, the effort is raising concern from safety experts who say the technology has major limitations that can be very dangerous. Self-driving cars have trouble seeing in bad weather. Sudden downpours, snow and especially puddles make it difficult for autonomous vehicles to detect lines on pavement and thereby stay in one lane.

Walker Smith added that self-driving cars have sometimes confused bridges for other obstacles. “People need to understand both the potential and the limitations of these systems, and inviting them inside is part of that education,” he said.

The vehicles also have difficulty understanding human gestures — for example, a crosswalk guard in front of a local elementary school may not be understood, said Mary Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Lab, at a Senate hearing in March. She recommended that the vehicles not be allowed to operate near schools.

Then there’s a the human factor: Researchers have shown that people like to test and prank robots. Today, a GPS jammer, which some people keep in their trunks to block police from tracking them, will easily throw off a self-driving car’s ability to sense where it is, Cummings said.

For perspective, autonomous vehicles in Google’s fleet have driven just shy of 2 million miles as of Aug. 31. New York City taxicabs drive 1.4 million miles in just over a day, Cummings said. Uber declined to reveal how many miles its driverless cars have logged on public roads but said it will be testing Ford Fusions there, then Volvos. The program will be opt-in, with a select group of Uber customers getting an email asking if they want to participate. Both vehicles have been vetted on test tracks in Pittsburgh, the company said.

See here for some background. We’ll get some data on the safety question one way or the other, and while I’m wary of this it is important to remember that the point of comparison is not “no problems at all” but “the amount of problems one would expect with human drivers instead of robot drivers”. These things could experience some problems and still be an improvement in safety. Or not – like I said, we’ll find out. I’m more interested in the rider experience. How many of Uber’s customers that they have invited to give this a try will do so? What will they think, and how many of them will want to do it again? How will the people who aren’t invited to try this feel about it – jealous, relieved, something else? I can’t wait to hear the answers.

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