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Trust issues will now hound autonomous cars

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If you regularly consume car-related content and you feel like you’ve been reading “autonomous vehicles” and “artificial intelligence” a lot lately, you’re not alone. It’s a legitimate trend. Or at least a very clear direction that proponents of self-driving cars have been promoting to the public. It’s as if a whole new automotive industry can’t wait to disrupt and take over the existing one.

In the minds of regular folk, the reality of fully autonomous vehicles — or cars that can completely navigate traffic on their own sans any driver input — is still decades away. Unbeknown to many, self-driving cars are now being tested in real-world motoring scenarios as I write this. In fact, an autonomous Uber car just hit and killed a pedestrian in the US state of Arizona, which is supposedly the first-ever recorded fatality involving a self-driving car.

For those who aren’t aware, self-driving cars are exactly what the name says: They’re vehicles that transport people and go through traffic without a human driver. Using a high-tech network of cameras and sensors, these vehicles are able to recognize and analyze road markings, detect and avoid road obstacles, and reach set destinations.

Initial fears, naturally, centered on whether these driverless cars can react as instinctively well as humans in an emergency situation — fears that were conveniently sidestepped by developers who went ahead with real-world testing. And when I say real-world testing, it means deploying these vehicles onto actual roads where they will encounter and interact with human-driven cars and (more crucially) pedestrians.

Ride-hailing service company Uber — one of the most eager companies when it comes to fast-tracking the development of autonomy and artificial intelligence in cars — have partnered with several automakers like Volvo in building and fine-tuning self-driving cars. One of the places the firm has designated as a testing ground is Tempe, Arizona. On March 18, an autonomous Volvo XC90 operated by Uber struck and took the life of a 49-year-old female pedestrian in the city.

Uber is just one of a handful tech-focused companies aggressively developing self-driving vehicles. Another is Waymo, an offshoot of Google’s autonomous car project.

With the casualty, it is reasonable to expect commuters and especially government regulators to be particularly wary of robot cars. This will likely pull down the campaign at least a couple of notches in terms of public acceptance. If misinformed people can be spooked by “self-launching” SUVs that supposedly suffer from sudden unintended acceleration, imagine the horror of having to picture a motor vehicle without a warm body controlling it. Good luck convincing passengers to hop in.

Fair or not, we will now have a harder time entrusting our road safety to a bunch of AI vehicles. According to Reuters, Waymo indicates in a report that its self-driving cars have already chalked up some five million miles in real-world testing. If that’s true, the fatal incident is negligible in comparison. It may sound cruel and insensitive, but that’s the basic math of things.

But people don’t care about the accident-free, five-million-mile test. They care about the one life that was lost (and not even in the test of the same company but in another test by a rival). They will not give a hoot about the countless positives in the evolution of self-driving cars; they will only rail against a single negative.

It’s like getting everything correctly in a 100-page glossy magazine — and unfortunately getting one price figure glaringly wrong. Readers won’t be sending congratulatory messages to the editors; they’ll only call the staff’s attention to the typo.

Again, fair or not, it is what it is.

Has the development of autonomous vehicles hit a wall? No, not really. Uber and the others aren’t abandoning their projects and experiments over one casualty. They’ve come too far to stop or slow down now. They’re charging full speed ahead.

It’s just that they’ll have to start almost all over again in the PR game. They’ll have to assure and convince us that the tragedy won’t happen again. They’ll have to spend big and work hard to achieve that. A distraction, yes.

But self-driving cars are almost upon us. Fair or not.