Opponents of autonomous vehicles claim fatalities, like this one involving Tesla’s Autopilot system in Florida last year, prove the technology is unsafe. But history shows research will continue and eventual deployment is highly likely.
 - Photo: NTSB/Florida Highway Patrol

Opponents of autonomous vehicles claim fatalities, like this one involving Tesla’s Autopilot system in Florida last year, prove the technology is unsafe. But history shows research will continue and eventual deployment is highly likely.

Photo: NTSB/Florida Highway Patrol

Every now and then – once or twice a year, it seems – we get news reports that someone has died because autonomous vehicle technology has failed in one way or the other. And despite the fact that we are very early in the development and deployment phase of these new technologies, as soon as a tragedy like this occurs, we are set upon by pundits and commentators on social media, cable TV, radio and other outlets, telling us that here is more proof that autonomous vehicles are unsafe. These claims are usually followed by demands that autonomous technology be outlawed. Or – at the very least – research into autonomous vehicles should be seriously dialed back.

I understand there are a great many people out there who are seriously worried about the impact autonomous technologies will have on our society. And I also get the emotional aspect. While it is certainly tragic when one human being accidently kills another, there is something decidedly bone-chilling about the idea of a cold, emotionless robot taking a human life.

But even if you’re rooting for autonomous vehicle technology to ultimately fail, the argument that we’re not going to press ahead with research into autonomous vehicles and eventual adoption of some, if not all ,of its aspects, is a specious one. Why do I say that? Because history is pretty clear on this point.

Case in point: You can kill yourself – or someone else – on horseback. But it is a heck of a lot easier to do so in an automobile – particularly in an early automobile with virtually no safety features whatsoever and braking systems that were primitive, at best. (And I’m being extremely generous when I say that.)

I expect there were a few folks back in the early 1900s arguing that motorized vehicles were inherently dangerous and that we were clearly better off playing it safe and sticking with horses. And yet, we, as a global society, made the collective decision to keep developing automobiles and began to adopt them in ever-growing numbers over the coming decades.

Same thing with aviation. Flying an airplane – or even riding in airplane – 100 years ago was an insanely dangerous thing to do. Airplanes fell out of the sky with stunning regularity. And, in many of those cases, we didn’t understand aeronautical engineering well enough to understand why those crashes were occurring. Many of the most famous aviation pioneers celebrated today perished exploring the frontiers of flight. But yet again, our society never flinched from pursing this new technology, which eventually became an integral part of our modern transportation system.

And, finally, let’s take a look at space travel. You’d be hard-pressed to find another technology pursued from the outset with such caution and safety foremost in mind. Despite those best efforts, there were many fatalities as we pushed out toward Earth orbit and eventually the Moon. And, because we’re only just beginning to explore the cosmos, it seems certain that there will be other fatalities to come as we eventually make our way out to Mars and beyond.

In each of those three instances, the threat of fatalities never seriously curtailed the research of the technology in question, nor its eventual adoption by society.

Why? Because in each instance, it was clear to a majority of people that the benefits of each technology clearly outweighed the risks of developing them.

And that’s where I think we are today. All the indications are that if and when autonomous vehicle technology is deployed, it will have massively positive benefits for our society as a whole – and the trucking industry in particular.

That’s not to say it’s a sure thing autonomous vehicle technology will eventually become accepted as a safe and productive. There is still a long way to go before those things happen. But, if history is any indicator, injuries and fatalities will do little to halt its eventual acceptance in our society.

Author

Jack Roberts
Jack Roberts

Jack Roberts

As a licensed commercial driver, HDT senior editor Jack Roberts often reports on ground-breaking technical developments and trends in an industry being transformed by technology. With more than two decades covering trucking, in Truck Tech he offers his insights on everything from the latest equipment, systems and components, to telematics and autonomous vehicle technologies.

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As a licensed commercial driver, HDT senior editor Jack Roberts often reports on ground-breaking technical developments and trends in an industry being transformed by technology. With more than two decades covering trucking, in Truck Tech he offers his insights on everything from the latest equipment, systems and components, to telematics and autonomous vehicle technologies.

View Bio
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