Autonomous vehicle progress, which was cruising along at highway speeds, hit a bump on March 18th, when a self-driving Uber hit and killed a Tempe, Arizona pedestrian. Although media and public reactions were swift and severe, the mishap was not routine – per “Arizona Tragedy Will Not Slow Autonomous Vehicles” (Jon Markman, Forbes, April 24th), a police investigation “showed no fault by Uber,” and that the victim “emerged abruptly from shadows behind a dimly lit center median” and then “pushed a bicycle laden with plastic bags into oncoming traffic.” It was, though, as Daisuke Wakabayashi fairly put it in “Self-Driving Uber Car Kills Pedestrian in Arizona, Where Robots Roam” in the March 19th New York Times, “the first pedestrian death associated with self-driving technology” and “was a reminder that self-driving technology is still in the experimental stage.”
Along with overreactions, stories such as “Uber’s Self-Driving Cars Were Struggling Before Arizona Crash” (also Wakabayashi in the Times, March 23rd) implied that the tragedy was not a general driverless problem but more likely inherent to that company, which over the past two years has shown irresponsibility in a variety of other areas and in the autonomous realm was having its drivers “being asked to do more” such as, unlike those working for others, “going on solo runs.” Uber was also averaging 13 miles “before the driver had to take control from the computer to steer it out of trouble,” compared with Waymo’s “nearly 5,600.” As well, according to “Uber Clarifies Autonomous Vehicles’ Biggest Problem” (The Motley Fool in Fox Business, March 23rd), “consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog” stated that “Uber simply cannot be trusted to use public roads as private laboratories without meaningful safety standards and regulations.” The headline of Alan Ohnsman’s March 24th Forbes “Waymo CEO On Uber Crash: Our Self-Driving Car Would Have Avoided Pedestrian” gave one intra-industry reaction, which I am inclined to believe. We may never know all the circumstances, but the company in charge seems uncoincidental.
Even without the Uber connection, the state of the field was well summarized by Andrew Krok in CNET’s Road Show, as described by the story’s headline, “Fatal Uber crash in Arizona is autonomy’s Apollo 1 moment,” and its ending of “how the developers of autonomous vehicles act from here on out will make or break the idea of this happening anytime remotely soon. Let’s make sure we still get to the moon.” Kevin Roose, in “The Self-Driving Car Industry’s Biggest Turning Point Yet” in the March 30th New York Times, said that his driverless rides had varied from “calm and boring” to “terrifying white-knuckle,” that they are now heterogeneous in safety, and that “as Uber’s autonomous driving program stalls out,” Waymo’s “is shifting into overdrive.”
I end with another Motley Fool effort, Chris Neiger’s April 13th “How to Make Money in Self-Driving Cars.” That now seems easier to assess in this industry headed for, per an Intel estimate, “a new “passenger economy” that will be worth $7 trillion by 2050,” but, in what became a gigantic market the last time around, the likes of Stutz and Hupmobile once looked strong. Neiger echoed Roose by saying “at this point there’s likely no stopping driverless cars from becoming a major part of our transportation industry in the coming decades,” and recommended Waymo parent company Alphabet and car-computer-maker NVIDIA, with consideration also for General Motors, Ford, and Tesla and overall guidance that “investors who are looking to benefit from the autonomous vehicle market may want to consider hitching a ride now.” The technology is marching on, and, as has been the case for since at least the beginning of last year, whether we like it or not we must join it, work with it, and make sure our financial assets reflect this reality. Those choices will serve us best.