Katherine Anne Long / The Seattle Times (TNS)
Tech industry experts, city planners and even Governor Jay Inslee have touted self-driving cars as a panacea, reducing traffic jams and vehicle emissions while reducing collisions.
But an announcement last Monday by Amazon’s Zoox self-driving car unit that it will soon begin testing its autonomous vehicles in downtown Seattle drew criticism from transportation safety advocates. The technology’s initial promise, they said, has been overshadowed by a series of accidents and near misses, in part due to lax oversight of the rapidly growing industry.
“A lot of people have accepted the self-driving car hype, that they’re going to make the trade-off between safety and speed,” said former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, now director of America Walks pedestrian advocacy group. . “But safety requires moving slowly and stopping at signs of danger.”
“It has been a challenge for autonomous vehicles to do this in an urban setting with pedestrians and bicycles,” McGinn continued.
Over the next few months, Zoox plans to test up to four Toyota Highlander SUVs equipped with the company’s autonomous driving technology and sensors in the Belltown, South Lake Union and downtown Seattle neighborhoods, said City Department of Transportation spokesperson Ethan Bergerson. Human drivers will be in the cars to take over in the event of a possible collision, Zoox said in a press release on Monday.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Zoox co-founder Jesse Levinson said the company has obtained all relevant regulatory approvals to test its cars in Seattle.
This required paperwork, however, is equivalent to a one-page self-certification filed with the Washington State Department of Licensing, in which Zoox lists their insurance information, checks a box indicating that a human driver will be present. and accepts that the driver will monitor the vehicle and take over “if assistance is required”.
Zoox did not respond to requests for comment.
Amazon acquired Zoox in 2020. The autonomous vehicle company, headquartered in the California Bay area, has announced plans to create a fleet of driverless taxis.
Self-driving cars have been hailed as a way to keep human drivers – somewhat unpredictable and sometimes debilitated in nature – from behind the wheel, reducing a major risk factor for road crashes.
Autonomous vehicle companies, including Tesla and Google’s sister company Waymo, and until recently Uber and Lyft, predicted a future of driverless robotaxis as early as 2020.
Technological challenges and legal headaches have complicated these large projects. Until now, a fully autonomous car remains out of reach. Autonomous vehicle makers, however, continue to test their latest designs on public roads.
The risks of such testing were fiercely demonstrated in 2018 when an autonomous Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona during a test drive. Documents later released by the National Transportation Safety Board showed that Uber had not programmed the car to anticipate riders. Last month, a video circulated widely on social media that showed a Tesla running on autopilot still in development heading towards pedestrians blocks from Amazon headquarters in Seattle.
Amid growing skepticism about the feasibility of autonomous driving technologies, Uber and Lyft have sold their autonomous vehicle divisions over the past year at what some analysts have called a discount price.
A lack of independent review of accidents in which self-driving cars have been involved also makes it difficult to judge company safety claims, said Angie Schmitt, author of “Right of Way,” a book on pedestrian deaths.
“They are using pedestrians as guinea pigs in an experiment that can be fatal,” Schmitt said. “We will never allow experimental drugs to be tested in this way on people who have not explicitly consented, but for some reason we just haven’t applied the same kind of ethical parameters to cars.”
Self-driving cars aren’t just risky from a safety standpoint, said Anna Zivarts, who sits on the executive committee of the Washington State Autonomous Vehicle Task Force, created in 2018 by the legislature to prepare for the State to self-driving cars. . Continuing to devote attention and money to these cars distracts attention from proven solutions to issues such as pedestrian safety and traffic jams, she said.
“We should invest in things that we know work,” Zivarts said, “like public transport and sidewalks”.