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Autonomous Uber accident also a story of distracted driving

The deadly crash involving a pedestrian and a self-driving Uber vehicle from last March has an additional wrinkle: distraction. Uber's program required that autonomous vehicles in its fleet have safety drivers in case the technology fails. Safety drivers are forbidden from using their cell phones while the cars are operating. A report from local police show that the safety driver in question was using her cell phone to access Hulu at the time of the crash. In fact, the device had already been streaming from her Hulu account for 42 minutes when the vehicle struck and killed a woman crossing the street with her bike. The car was going 39 mph when the collision occurred.

An overwhelming temptation

Distracted driving is a rapidly growing problem on American roads. Countless people are succumbing to the temptation of their smartphones while driving. Most of these drivers have no expectation that the car is being operated safely during their inattention. They simply can't resist looking away. For people in autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles, the temptation is exacerbated by the mistaken belief that safe driving will continue while their focus is elsewhere.

A difficult transition

The technology behind autonomous vehicles is still being developed. The companies behind the tech, as well as lawmakers, are likely to rely on human drivers as backup for some time before approving fully autonomous driving. The transition from human drivers to full automation would be difficult even if distracted driving weren't such a growing problem. As it stands, the transition is likely to be disastrous. Few if any drivers can maintain the focus necessary to serve as a safety backup while cars drive themselves mile after mile.

Automated vehicles are likely to be much safer than human drivers in the long run. How we get from here to there remains to be seen. Any measure that relies on people to stay engaged behind the wheel despite not being primarily in charge is potentially asking for more than most people can give.

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