Uber rolled out its pilot program for self-driving cars Wednesday, and the consensus from those reporting on their experience was that the ride was safe — to a fault.
"The car didn’t operate like the average human driver instead it was hyper-efficient. When the speed limit was 35 mph, our car went exactly 35 mph. When that limit increased, it accelerated aggressively to reach the new speed," Quartz reporters Mike Murphy and Alison Griswold wrote. "At the same time, the car didn’t always navigate with such confidence. It would slow down when approaching traffic lights and then speed through them after registering that they were green. It took the corners on right-hand turns very slowly."
Acknowledging the limitations of automation, safety engineers rode along as well, able to take control of the car if needed. New York Times reporter Mike Isaac said his driver took the wheel in “intersections where locals are known to speed,” and immediately braked and took control of the car when a truck driver illegally backed out onto the road.
Quartz noted that Uber’s cars can't recognize emergency vehicles’ sirens, and struggled with stop lights.
Still, Isaac noted that “for most of the ride, I rarely felt unsafe.” At any time he could request the driver take over or press a button that would end the ride. Murphy and Griswold also write that they “never felt acutely unsafe,” but were “also very glad to have two experienced humans sitting behind the wheel and monitoring everything.”
Uber believes automated cars to be safer than human drivers and that it can reduce vehicle-related deaths, The New York Times noted. Isaac said that during his ride, the car stopped well behind other cars, drove the exact speed limit of 25 mph, and refused to turn right on red, waiting instead for the green light.
Other reporters backed up Uber's convictions with their anecdotes from Wednesday. Yahoo’s Paul Handley wrote how, when a motorist at a four-way stop thought it was his turn, the car’s computer detected a threat and employed the brakes.
Andrew Hawkins at the Verge reported a similar incident, where the Ford SUV in front stopped without warning. Before Hawkins could respond instinctively to his brain’s warning to brake, the car did so on its own in an “abrupt but gentle” way.
The era of driverless cars isn’t quite here yet, Business Insider noted. But automakers and tech companies expect “the traditional model of car ownership will dwindle with the rise of self-driving cars,” as it becomes cheaper to hail a driverless cab than to own a car for routine commuting and other transportation needs.
In 2015, Merrill Lynch predicted that driverless cabs would make up 43 percent of new car sales by 2040, Business Insider noted. Similarly, The Boston Consulting Group speculated in 2015 that 23 percent of global new car sales in 2040 will come from driverless taxis, leading to a decline in vehicle ownership in cities.
“Whoever has the relationship with the customer will ultimately win the ride-sharing market,” Danielle Muoio wrote for Business Insider. Uber, with one of the world’s largest ride-sharing networks, has an advantage with its existing ride-sharing network.
The self-driving car is still in its infancy, as Uber’s director of Advanced Technologies Center, Raffi Krikorian, told NPR. It’s not the everyday but the unusual that is a concern in future development, Krikorian continued. "What does a self-driving car do when a row of ducks crosses in front of the [car]?”
“Uber is like the Wright brothers testing the world's first airplane on the coast of North Carolina,” Liz Reid wrote for NPR. “Pretty cool. But not terribly practical, yet.”
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