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Driverless car fatality: expert cautions

Driverless car fatality: expert cautions against regulatory backlash

The author of a major study on regulation of driverless vehicles has warned against a regulatory over-reaction to this week’s pedestrian fatality in the US.

New Zealander Michael Cameron says the cause of the accident, the first pedestrian death involving a driverless vehicle, is still unclear, but the safety of all road users will ultimately be improved by full adoption of the new technology.

“Driverless vehicles will be safer than the human-controlled vehicles,” Michael says. “Some regulation is necessary, but any regulation that slows down the adoption of driverless technology will likely cost many more lives than it saves.”

Michael says that this week’s death in an Uber vehicle trial in Arizona had a historic equivalent more than a century ago, when the first motor vehicles were introduced.

“In 1896, the 45 year old Bridget Driscoll became the first recorded pedestrian fatality to be killed by a motor vehicle. And in 2018, it appears that 49 year-old Elaine Herzberg has tragically become the first pedestrian to be killed by a driverless vehicle.

“Back in 1896, the nascent motor vehicle industry managed to avoid a regulatory backlash from the Driscoll tragedy. But these are different times. There have already been calls for tighter regulations by the director of Consumer Watchdog in the US. The irony is that, this time around, we actually have a technology that is safer than the existing technology it will replace,” Michael says.

“The fact the vehicle wasn’t technically driverless and had a supervising driver constantly ready to take over is a detail likely to be lost in the response, but it is extremely important. While we won’t know for sure until the investigation is complete, the supervising driver would have been a highly skilled professional, and he or she also failed to avoid Ms Herzberg.”

In April the New Zealand Law Foundation will release Michael’s report, Realising the Potential of Driverless Vehicles for New Zealand. It identifies key regulatory changes needed to allow for the smooth introduction of driverless vehicles. Just as importantly, it identifies changes that should not be made because they would likely be counter-productive.

Michael’s study, which involved research in New Zealand, the United States, Europe and Australia, was made possible by a New Zealand Law Foundation International Research Fellowship award in 2017.


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