The Danger of Technological Ambition

Toyota Takes Self-Driving Cars Off Road After Uber Accident”

By Neal Boudette

Toyota Car

Photo: Toyota’s autonomous vehicles

In his March 20 New York Times article, Neal Boudette addresses the latest in the world of the self-driving car after the pedestrian death in Arizona on Sunday, believed to be the first pedestrian fatality associated with this kind of technology. The accident was one involving an autonomous vehicle operated, notably, by Uber, a company that has been a topic of recent discussion not only as a result of this accident but also for its position in data and privacy debates. While Uber, in the wake of the accident, did suspend its testing of these cars on the streets of the four cities it has used as test grounds—Tempe (where the accident occurred), Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Toronto—the accident incited automaker Toyota Motor to take action as well. On Tuesday, two days after the accident, Toyota announced that it had suspended its own testing of self-driving vehicles on public roads near its research center in Ann Arbor as well as on the streets of San Francisco. Toyota conducts tests in the same way that Uber had operated these vehicles—placing the autonomous cars on the road but placing engineers and safety drivers within each car who can take control if needed. Boudette reports, however, that Ford and General Motors, two other carmakers, have not halted tests of their self-driving cars and are still doing so on public roads. Other companies such as Lyft and Waymo, the autonomous vehicle sector of Google’s parent company Alphabet, did not offer comments on the current status of their self-driving testing programs.

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Photo: Diagram of Arizona accident. It is known that the autonomous Uber was traveling at around 40mph, however it did not slow down even when the Herzberg came into view

The area of autonomous vehicles has become something of an arms race, and all of these companies are in it to win, with G.M aiming to start a ride-hailing service by the end of 2019 with a car it has developed to require no steering wheel or pedals. Ford is also aiming to have a similar car in mass production by 2021.

The competitive nature of this field of engineering and discovery amongst these automakers, all of which are massive corporations, adds an interesting element to a discussion of both Boudette’s article and Toyota’s actions, and for a consideration of what it all means within the bigger picture of technology, human safety, and corporate responsibility. Similar to our discussions of data privacy, this topic, and now issue, is one filled with questions of government and corporate responsibility, and who has the right—or obligation—to draw the line. While Boudette notes that some universities as well as state and local governments have been working to create realistic “proving grounds” where companies can work on these vehicles without interacting with the public, the case of the accident in Arizona is a deathly example how ambitions to grow more and more advanced in the realm of technology can pose real danger to the people powerless against these developments. Toyota is a company that took a stand and outwardly showed, if one reads between the lines of its statement, that safety and proper procedure are at the top of its list of priorities. That other companies, however, have not stopped to think in the wake of this horrific accident, or have declined to comment at all on how they will proceed, provides a glaring look into the darker side of science and technology, one in which companies may be so concerned with their own progress and growth that they lose sight of what may be be right for the greater population.

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Photo: What the car sees–a graphic representing how the autonomous cars perceive the space around them and navigate the obstacles of the road

Link to article:

All photos courtesy of nytimes.com