Don't let fear make self-driving cars the next GMOs

With last week’s crash by a Tesla sedan in the United States – the company’s first recorded self-driving fatality – there is now a danger that autonomous cars will provoke the same unfortunate and self-defeating scepticism as genetically modified organisms did before them.

At issue is a crash that occurred in May. Joshua Brown, 40, a Navy veteran, was cruising on a Florida motorway in his Tesla Model S with the Autopilot mode turned on. According to reports, the car drove headlong into a turning tractor trailer at an intersection because its sensors were unable to distinguish the truck’s white colour from the bright sky behind it.

The Guardian’s report framed the accident as “a development that is sure to cause consumers to second-guess the trust they put in the booming autonomous vehicle industry.” The New York Times said the belief that computers can operate a vehicle more safely than human drivers “is now in question.”

Federal regulators in the United States have indeed launched an investigation into the incident.

Tesla, for its part, defended the accident appropriately. In a statement posted online, the company said it was “beyond saddened” for the Brown family’s loss, but also reiterated that its Autopilot mode was still in its testing phase. Drivers are urged to keep their hands on the wheel at all times and the cars will inevitably slow down if they detect that such instructions are being ignored.

Tesla was also quick to point out that Mr Brown’s death was the first known fatality in one of its cars, despite 209 million kilometres logged by its Autopilot feature. That’s better than the overall US average of one fatality for every 151 million kilometres and less than half the worldwide average of one death per 96 million kilometres.

The numbers jibe with results from Google, the company best known for developing self-driving cars. Google’s fully autonomous vehicles have logged only a few minor accidents in more than 2.4 million kilometres of driving.

Human drivers, meanwhile, are steadily contributing to one of the top 10 causes of death in a number of countries. In the United States, car accidents are the leading killer of teenagers. In the UAE, 675 people died in traffic accidents last year. The World Health Organisation estimates that 1.2 million people died on roads in 2013, the latest year for which it has data.

So far, robot cars are driving circles around humans, at least as far as safety is concerned.

Regulators, the media and the public are right to demand that autonomous vehicle manufacturers follow strict rules and authorities should do their utmost to independently verify that the test results being reported are indeed accurate.

But we also must not forget about the technology’s life-saving potential. Despite what many drivers may think about themselves, the numbers prove that humans make terrible drivers – and thousands of individuals and families are paying the heaviest price for it every year. Car crashes are a veritable epidemic, which is why robot cars cannot get here soon enough.

Unnecessary angst over self-driving vehicles could delay or even prevent millions of lives being saved in the same way that overly cautious regulators and uninformed critics have slowed the benefits of genetically modified foods.

GMOs, which splice and combine DNA from two or more organisms, first ­arrived in the 1990s, but they are still facing stiff resistance in many parts of the world.

Most European countries refuse to allow them to be grown despite their many benefits, as well as a raft of science confirming their safety. Meanwhile, regulators in poorer countries continue to block Golden Rice, an engineered strain that has a higher vitamin A content, despite more than a decade of safe tests.

More than 100 Nobel laureates last week signed a sharply worded letter to Greenpeace, the advocacy group that has led the charge against GMOs, accusing it of harming global biodiversity and encouraging disease and death in poorer ­countries.

Greenpeace’s opposition to Golden Rice is especially problematic, they wrote, given that hundreds of thousands of children lose their eyesight and die from vitamin A deficiency each year.

“How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a ‘crime against humanity?’” the laureates wrote.

There are many issues yet to be resolved with autonomous vehicles, but stoking fears rather than focusing on the facts risks the same question applying to robot cars down the road.

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species


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