Tesla, Uber, Waymo, and a group of like-minded companies have been in the spotlight over the past year. It’s exciting stuff. Something that was deemed science fiction not very long ago is in development and testing as we speak. The collective competition of being the first to successfully implement fully autonomous vehicles is intense and very much at the center of our focus on tech companies, at least while other companies aren’t busy losing our personal data.
Along the way, the attention has shifted from a fascinated crowd witnessing impossibly cool technological developments come to fruition to apprehensive masses seeing the fatal consequences of error. As we blaze forward into the unknown, it will likely continue to follow a similar pattern as each mistake made in this new technological arena has human beings doubting the very progress that we’ve so fervently pursued. Still, the question of error has caused companies, users, and the public to reevaluate how they perceive error in the first place.
In 2016, the first known self-driving vehicle death happened in a Tesla. On March 18, Uber, under orders from the governor of Arizona, halted testing of their autonomous vehicle fleet in Arizona after one of their vehicles killed a woman. A week later, a man died in a crash in his Tesla in California while it was in the self-driving mode. Among these tragedies, the autonomous vehicle sectors of these companies may be taking pause, but they aren’t ceasing to fine tune their technical specs. After the tragic Tesla death, the company released a statement: “In the past, when we have brought up statistical safety points, we have been criticized for doing so, implying that we lack empathy for the tragedy that just occurred. Nothing could be further from the truth. We care deeply for and feel indebted to those who chose to put their trust in us. However, we must also care about people now and in the future whose lives may be saved if they know that Autopilot improves safety.”
These fatalities are tragic, yet it’s the nature of them that’s so jarring for onlookers. It’s new territory. Machine accidents cause 35% of work-related injuries and 14% of work-related deaths every year. A statistic that equates to a number much greater than the autonomous vehicle tragedies of recent news, we’re beset with observing a change in technologies and the status quo we’ve related to error and its impact on human beings. Error, whether machine, human, or a combination of both, is beginning to evolve. As we move forward, it will be up to these companies to carefully consider how they want their technologies to shape the landscape of future safety and progress. As well designed as machines can be, they’re still being built by human hands and ideas, the very foundation of which are synonymous with both brilliance and bungles.
The realization that these errors have real, human consequences should certainly be informing how developers approach their technological infants and how they’re playing with actual people.