(Warning: Some of you may consider this footage a bit graphic.)
The Tempe Police Vehicular Crimes Unit is investigating the self-driving Uber that struck a woman who later died from her injuries. Many of us following the autonomous space were very curious as to how it happened, but could only speculate. Now, however, the police have made the footage publicly available and we can see exactly what happened, including what the human monitor behind the wheel was doing:
It's difficult to tell from the lighting in the video, but if what's portrayed on-screen is similar to what would be seen by a human driver in the same situation, the poor woman does indeed seem to come out of nowhere; is clearly crossing the street at a place with no marked crosswalk; and does not appear to be looking out for herself at all.
That being said, if the lighting situation portrayed in the video is different than what would be seen in real life, an engaged human driver might have been able to spot the woman in their peripheral vision while she was still a lane away. It's impossible to tell. But I think that once she was in the lane the car was in, no human could have applied the brakes in time. Perhaps a computer could have--if it spotted her.
This video raises at least three points, the first two being intertwined. I think the first point is obvious: The entire point of autonomous cars is that they ought be able to prevent accidents that we humans, with our ordinary reflexes and perception, could not.
The second point, which will certainly be debated endlessly, is: Are people willing to live with an autonomous car killing someone in a situation where no human could have prevented the death anyway?
The third point illustrates a danger with having a system meant to hand things off between human and driver. The human monitor has clearly been lulled into not paying avid attention, and I can't fault him, as I think we as humans are wired to either be engaged or not engaged in operating a machine. Once we observe that something is "safe" and automatic, particularly after logging many hours without incident, I think it's natural that our attention would wander.
Lastly I'll ask you: If you were behind the wheel as the monitor, do you think you would have been paying more attention, and could have applied the brakes in time?