Archive | March, 2018

Interesting Questions Surrounding the “Self-Driving Car” Pedestrian Death in Arizona

31 Mar

Jaywalking is, of course, very common.  It is even the most common way to cross the street in many locations.  Inevitably, many “self-driving car” accidents will involve jaywalking pedestrians.  Because of this reality, and in comparison to traditional levels of safety, there doesn’t seem to be a good reason for automatically classifying all such future accidents as caused by the “jaywalking” itself.  In fact, if computer code developers had not already conceded this on their own, we would have seen many more incidents by now.  Clearly, in the case of injuries and deaths to jaywalkers, hindsight investigation into the software and hardware performance of these vehicles should still be required.

In the immediate aftermath of the Arizona incident in which a jaywalking woman was hit and killed by a “self-driving car” as she pushed her bicycle across the road at night – the Tempe Arizona police chief said that vehicle footage suggested the victim herself may have been to blame as she appeared suddenly out of the shadows, and that it would have been difficult to avoid this accident under any mode of operation.  My unofficial (and poorly researched) impression is similar after viewing a snippet of this footage online.  Within just weeks, however, family members of the victim had obtained a financial settlement with Uber (the operator of this vehicle test).  And subsequently, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) stated that the vehicle itself did – in fact – “see” the jaywalker in advance, however, the car’s emergency braking system was intentionally disabled (in this humanly-monitored mode of testing) so as to avoid any unwanted erratic behavior.  And then, more recently, the Tempe police have stated that the driver was in fact streaming a program on HULU around the time of the accident, and that in their opinion the crash would have been “entirely avoidable” had the human driver been paying attention.  ……………. And so, at this preliminary stage we appear to have the following (non official and possibly conflicting) evolutionary discussion as to who is to blame:

  • The victim was at fault – crash was unavoidable by the human driver or autonomous system.
  • The car’s autonomous system saw the victim in advance but did nothing, however, no statements suggesting fault on the part of Uber test designers or the car manufacturer.
  • The human “driver monitor” now said (in the police investigation) to be at fault – in stark contrast to the first impression listed above.

It is interesting to note that the only “purely objective” information within the “evolution of blame” above is that the car’s autonomous system was aware of the jaywalker and did nothing.  The NTSB’s investigation has not reached its’ final conclusions, but a few questions – seemingly missed by the press – come to mind:

  • With the non-intuitive revelation that “automatic braking” was intentionally disabled during this testing – has anyone asked whether Uber and the car manufacturers were intending to include these “miles driven” in any future “miles driven” claims supporting the “proven safety” of these cars?
  • Is it possible (I ask in complete ignorance) that the Tempe police department has now concluded – as a matter of convenience – that this accident was the fault of the human monitor simply because she was doing something she shouldn’t have been doing at the time?  (You know, in the same way a drunk driver may automatically be assumed “at fault” regardless of what actually caused a particular accident).  Should we allow “Batman” to blame “Robin” in these cases?
  • Has there been any immediate/emergency discussion between the NHTSA/NTSB and “self-driving car” testers concerning this decision to deactivate the automatic braking system?
  • (As previously doubted) Is there actually any scientific evidence showing that a human driver monitor can rightfully be expected to correct for all, or even “most” of the types of errors a “self-driving vehicle” might be expected to make?  Keeping in mind, of course, that any sudden and unexpected behavior by an autonomous vehicle will likely set in motion a time consuming cognitive process such as “Maybe there is a good reason why the car is swerving?” within its’ human monitor.  Have testers and lawmakers even “thought” about – let alone “tested” – their assumptions?
  • It appears that these “self-driving cars” conveniently morph in and out of “self awareness” and feelings of guilt.  With the continued use of the misnomers “self-driving” and “autonomous” – are manufacturers and testers of these vehicles dodging an otherwise proper degree of scrutiny in terms of “fault” through a simple mistake in “semantics”?
  • Considering the length of time the NTSB is intending to put into just this one investigation (I read “14 months”) ……….Has anyone asked what will happen in the (“inevitable”) future when many of these cars are out there, and the accidents start rolling in?  These investigations will be similar to airplane crash investigations in a number of ways.  They will involve black boxes and no surviving witnesses at times.  In addition, if a software “decision making” design flaw is to blame in a particular crash, then – unlike in the case of a dead human driver – this issue will continue to put the general public (encountering or driving the same car) at risk until the problem is fixed.  Are we to expect that the same relative degree of attention and resources will be applied to all such accidents in the very busy future?

It seems fairly inevitable that the NTSB (or whoever?) will be forced to put accidents into categories with differing priorities.  I suspect that – as with drunk driving – convenient conclusions will be assigned in order to cut down on the case load.  Even worse, I can imagine politicians enacting legislation which will become stricter in the automatic assigning of blame – but which will bring us further from the truth and cause added overall danger.  I know personally how hard it is to get politicians’ attention concerning those specific laws and road designs installed in recent years which are (clearly) untested and adding new dangers for pedestrians.

Many absurd statements surrounding “driver-less cars” go unchallenged by our officials and the press.  I heard a “self-driving car” representative say – in relation to this story about the first pedestrian death – that his company’s cars have travelled over five million miles (“without killing anyone” I guess was his point).  He seemed to think this was a big deal.  However, this is the equivalent of only ten “lifetime’s worth” of driving (assuming someone drove an average of 10,000 miles a year and stopped driving at age 67).  So his statement would be like me standing in a room surrounded by ten retired people and saying “Wow, isn’t it amazing that no one in this room ever killed someone with their car”!  Add to this the likelihood that the testing he was referring to – as with the Uber testing – was likely not, in any way, all encompassing.

When I took “Driver’s Ed” in high school, I was taught that a “moving car” is “like a weapon”, and that it was illegal to leave a car running without a driver inside.  We’ve come a long way baby!

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Pedestrian Deaths Rising – The 3 Major Controllable (Yet Still Unaddressed!) Factors ……. Can You Hear Me Now?

2 Mar

I just heard another report saying that Pedestrian Deaths have increased disproportionately since 2010.  So – considering that cell phones had already been distracting us for years by that time – could there possibly be other factors more closely corresponding to the period in question? …. Hhhhmmm? …….. A recent incident, in which a young girl was hit by a car – no brakes applied – directly in front of my apartment and (according to the driver) under one of the exact scenarios I have been warning about (“just after dark, children now expecting cars will stop for them, driver could not see her in the glare of opposing headlights”), seems to suggest so!  (New readers here should try to get up to speed by reading my earlier essay “‘Stop and Stay Stopped’ Crosswalk Law Has Created Many New Dangers” about this law enacted (at least in New Jersey) in mid 2010.  Experienced visitors, and those on the go, can check out the (painfully condensed) summary below which is my attempt to quickly describe the three sweatiest suspects in this unfortunate increase in deaths (and presumably injuries as well).

#1) The “Stop and Stay Stopped” Crosswalk Law (closely tied to the time period of increased pedestrian fatalities) compounds the “driver distraction” issue; misinterprets the only safe purpose of a crosswalk (which would be to corral pedestrians to the safest crossing locations where unambiguous stop lights and stop signs exist); dangerously changes the assumptions of safety on the part of pedestrians; creates logistical impossibilities for drivers as they – unlike with stop signs and lights – now need to continually monitor (and interpret) the intentions of jittery pedestrians along the entire right side of the road and simultaneously do the same for the left, all while keeping their third eye “on the road ahead” as taught in driving class; and has created numerous other problems meticulously described in the essay referred to above.  Readers should note that this essay focusses on those new dangers occurring after implementation of this law.  No doubt “Stop and Stay Stopped” sounded great on paper, but it is clear (from my professional experience) that it was never actually tested, or was wholly inadequately tested prior to implementation.  This is an emergency situation!  Resolution of this problem will require political and professional “fortitude” on the part of designers and politicians (who may have to admit they were wrong) in order to save lives. …….. I have noticed what appears to be a bit of “deflection” by officials when they are asked about the rise in pedestrian deaths (which at times are occurring in direct contradiction to concurrent drops in other types of traffic fatalities).  This failure to look honestly at what is actually going on out there is very concerning.

#2) Ill-conceived and Untested Road Safety “Improvement” Projects For these I can provide photos.  Examples include “curb bump-outs” such as the one in front of our middle school which suddenly eliminates the shoulder, turns children at curb’s edge into “human traffic cones” as they now stand within inches of oncoming traffic, and causes a crash risk for bicyclists.  These cyclists, in fact, are more often seen making the sudden forced dart into the direct lane of much faster moving car traffic as they attempt to make it to the far edge of the bump-out without being hit.  On one occasion I saw my handicapped neighbor teetering on the curb of one of these bump-outs, twisted around and trying to decide when to make a run for it!  ……. There are also “middle of the road islands” with beams, fountains, statues, and vegetation that completely block a driver’s view of those pedestrians crossing at the poorly considered far end crosswalk!  Our local example even included black ice in the middle of the crosswalk – just off the end of the island – caused by the new inability of salt trucks to reach this spot.  In fact, I was nearly killed there as I tried to stay upright while taking photos.  Unsuspecting pedestrians would be at even greater risk were they to (50% of the time) fall forward into the fast moving, narrow lane of traffic that could not see them up to that point.  ……. And (a danger to drivers) there are poorly conceived “left corner view obstructions” such as planters, county park walls, and other beautification projects that require stopped drivers to inch their way forward, nearly in line with an intersection’s oncoming traffic, just to see what is coming.  This puts them at grave risk of being the victim of a driver’s side broadsiding!  These “left corner view” obstructions may also lead to a driver being unnecessarily involved, as a third party, in someone else’s crash (as I also witnessed a couple blocks from home)   ……….. Plus many more asinine and untested road projects.

#3) There is no mechanism set-up by which citizens can easily report “Road Design/Law Dangers” such that this information will be automatically routed to the correct jurisdictions for remedy, and the lessons learned documented and made viewable for all other road designers and legislators around the country so as to avoid future proliferation of these mistakes.  This unchecked spreading of bad road design, and bad “safety” laws seems to be occurring now as states and localities rush to “fix” safety issues.  Currently – if citizens reporting dangers are lucky enough to finally get their many hours of labor into the correct hands – they find they are speaking to the people who have the most to fear (professionally) if knowledge of their “design mistake” is more widely disseminated!  In addition, I have found after questioning that police and fire crews are reluctant to get involved in the reporting of bad road design to their more politically connected higher ups.  So valuable “real world” feedback is being missed here as well.  This systemic failure to obtain citizen feedback is not only shockingly ironic in terms of these new “safety” projects (“beta tested” at the public’s risk), but also in terms of the present push to test “autonomous vehicles” at the public’s risk.  Does not the lack of a citizen feedback mechanism totally defeat the purpose of a “beta test”?  Beta testing works by recruiting a massive number of additional “testers”.  Will the only feedback obtained from the public be their participation as non-communicative “death statistics”?!  Case in point – I was nearly run over in a parking lot recently as a driver backed up while relying only on his “rear camera” view as displayed on the panel in front of him.  This camera does not provide views to the sides.  Who do I report this major “real world” result to before people are killed or horribly injured?  (Note: Perhaps “rear camera” views should only display on screens located behind the driver, thus requiring that they are actually turned around?  ……. Just a thought).  Anyways – I have an idea for a low cost citizen’s “Road Design/Law Danger” reporting system that would not require individual states to drastically change the way they do things, or for them to pass new laws.  Officials should contact me if interested.