On Tuesday of this week, in an article in The Guardian, Martin Robbins explained that statistically, we are ripe for the first fatality in a self-driving vehicle. Apparently we now know that this accident has already occurred, almost two months ago, as announced by the US National Highway Safety Transportation Administration in an article in the New York Times on Thursday.
Robbins asks what our reaction will be, or should be, to the first inevitable death. He looks at history for a guide, in particular the first death by automobile in Great Britain (Bridget Driscoll on August 17, 1896). It took a bit more than a year for the U.S. to catch up, with its first fatal accident happening to Henry H. Bliss on September 13, 1899. Both crashes were ruled to be accidental deaths, and no prosecutions were forthcoming.
Reaction to the First Auto-Related Death in Great Britain
What was the response to this new, exciting but dangerous technology more than one hundred years ago? According to he BBC — not much. Cars were still a novelty, life was cheap, and the rich still wanted their toys. The coroner opined that he hoped that Mrs. Driscoll’s death would be the last in this type of accident.
Ironically, although the car that mowed down Bridget Driscoll was moving at the “tremendous pace” of 4-8 mph (there were conflicting reports), the speed limit in Great Britain had been raised only weeks earlier from 2 mph in the city, where the accident took place, to 14 mph. The age of speed had begun.
What about in the U.S.?
The initial reaction to the first auto-related death in the States, as recorded in the archives of the New York Times, seemed concerned but not alarmed. The place where the unfortunate Henry Bliss alighted from the trolley car was, after all, on a “Dangerous Stretch” of the route. The early 1900’s would see a strong anti-car feeling, culminating in the (defeated) speed limit referendum in Cincinnati in 1923.
Tesla’s Response to the First Self-Driving Death
Tesla Motors issued a sad and thoughtful response to the tragic death. Not mentioning Mr. Brown by name, it gave the impression of a previously prepared statement, perhaps written in anticipation of the inevitable first fatality in a Tesla. The automaker admitted that its systems are not perfect, reminded drivers that it is not meant to be used as a true auto-pilot, and promised to correct the bug that caused the crash.
This is a tragedy, but it will be a greater tragedy if this terrible crash diverts our attention from the steady progress that safety systems and autonomous technologies are contributing to auto safety. Every day, on average, more than 80 people die in car-related accidents. Few of these crashes make national headlines. The day that an “ordinary” car crash is national news, will be the day that auto safety, and autonomous cars, are starting to reach their full potential.