Civic News

Uber, we’re not your R&D lab. Get self-driving cars off the road now

This is an editorial.

The moment of impact.

(Screenshot via YouTube)

Uber has received $21.1 billion in venture funding. Alphabet’s market cap is $710 billion. Toyota generated $247 billion in revenue last year. So why do we, the public, have to pay, sometimes with our lives, to be the R&D labs for their self-driving cars?

Such a price was paid by 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg when she was struck March 18 by a self-driving car being tested by Uber on a public road in Tempe, Ariz. The car, which did have a human driver, did not slow down and hit Hertzberg, who was walking a bicycle across the street seemingly at full speed.

Why must these cars be tested on the streets? Plenty of companies have built their own testing places. Apple bought a proving ground in Arizona to test its cars, Uber has one in Pittsburgh that looks like a parking lot, and others exist also. Presumably they need the variance and chaos of real life to be able to train their software. But they should do so on their own dime.

Even if they need to build some robots walking their robot bicycles, figure it out. Or they could hire people who consent to walk around or drive around in a fake town. It could work in a similar way that pharmaceutical trials for new drugs work. They too, need to be tested on real people, but they’re tested on populations that consent and are compensated for the risk they’re taking.


What we can’t have is another person killed so that a company can test its products. If they can’t afford to test autonomous vehicles without killing people, then maybe we’re not ready for the technology anyway.

We’re not opposed to self-driving technology. We’re for it! We don’t want to shut down any development of the cars and software. If people had wanted to ban planes after the Wright brothers crashed one, the world would be a much worse off place. But there’s a difference between the Wright brothers’ testing of early planes, which took place in empty fields and beaches, and autonomous cars on public streets.

As promising and as world-changing as this technology might be, let’s also not forget that these are private companies. This isn’t wartime and we do not need a general sacrifice from the public to help these corporations bring their products to market faster.

By April 1, Gov. Andrew Cuomo will have the option to continue or let lapse legislation that allows for the testing of autonomous vehicles on New York City streets. Currently, New York’s self-driving-car testing laws require a driver present in the driver’s seat and for the company to have a $5 million insurance policy, as well as requirements on the submission of test results. As far as we can tell, only one company has taken the state up on its policy, General Motors, which had its autonomous car unit, Cruise Automation, launch a test program in October.

We ask Gov. Cuomo not to extend the provisions.

The founding motto of Technically Media is “better cities through technology.” It has always been our position that technology is a means to an end, rather than an end unto itself. We support technology insofar as it makes our cities cleaner, easier and more efficient places to live. That support does not extend so far as to allowing the residents of our cities to be crash test dummies for private corporations testing out their products.

Companies: Uber
People: Andrew Cuomo
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