High-tech experts, city planners and even Governor Jay Inslee have touted self-driving cars as a panacea for reducing congestion and vehicle emissions, as well as reducing collisions.
But Monday’s announcement from self-driving car division Amazon Zoox that it will soon begin testing its autonomous vehicles in downtown Seattle drew criticism from transportation safety advocates. The technology’s early prospects were clouded by a string of disruptions and potential disruptions, they said, in part due to lax oversight of the fast-growing sector.
“A lot of people have gotten into the hype about self-driving cars because they will solve the trade-off between safety and speed,” said former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, now director of pedestrian protection at America Walks. “But safety requires you to move slowly and stop when danger appears.”
“This is a daunting task for self-driving vehicles in urban environments with pedestrians and bicycles,” McGinn continued.
Zoox plans to test drive as many as four Toyota Highlander SUVs equipped with autonomous driving technology and sensors in Belltown, South Lake Union and downtown Seattle in the coming months, City Department of Transportation spokesman Ethan Bergerson said. Human drivers will be in the vehicles to take responsibility in the event of a potential collision, Zoox said in a press release on Monday.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Zoox co-founder Jesse Levinson said the company has received all relevant regulatory approvals to test its vehicles in Seattle.
However, this does require paperwork making up a one-page self-certification filed with the Washington State Licensing Department, in which Zoox lists its insurance information, ticks the presence of a human driver and agrees that the driver will monitor the vehicle and accept it “if required help”.
Zoox did not respond to requests for comment.
Amazon acquired Zoox in 2020. The autonomous vehicle company, headquartered in the Gulf of California, said it is looking to create a fleet of self-driving taxis.
Self-driving cars are welcomed as a way to keep human drivers – inherently somewhat unpredictable and sometimes damaged – from the steering wheel, thereby reducing the main risk factor for road accidents.
Autonomous vehicle companies, including Tesla and Google subsidiary Waymo, and until recently Uber and Lyft, expected self-driving robotic taxis to arrive in the future by 2020.
These grandiose plans have been complicated by technological and legal challenges. For now, a fully self-driving car remains out of reach. However, autonomous vehicle companies continue to test their latest designs on public roads.
The risks of such tests were brutally demonstrated in 2018 when an Uber self-driving car hit a pedestrian in Arizona during a test drive. Documents later released by the National Transportation Safety Board showed that Uber had not programmed the car to wait for pedestrians. A video circulated widely on social media last month showing a Tesla car in autopilot mode, which is still under development. hitting pedestrians blocks from Amazon headquarters in Seattle.
Amid growing skepticism about the feasibility of self-driving technologies, Uber and Lyft have sold their autonomous vehicle divisions over the past year at what some analysts say are exorbitant prices.
According to Angie Schmitt, author of a book on pedestrian deaths, the lack of independent analysis of self-driving car accidents also makes it difficult to assess the company’s safety claims.
“They’re using pedestrians as guinea pigs in an experiment that could be deadly,” Schmitt said. “We will never allow experimental drugs to be tested in this way on people who have not given explicit consent, but for some reason we simply did not apply the same ethical parameters to cars.”
Self-driving cars are not only dangerous from a safety standpoint, according to Anna Zivarts, a member of the executive committee of the Washington State Autonomous Vehicle Working Group, created in 2018 by the legislature to prepare the state for self-driving cars. … The continued focus and money on these vehicles is distracting from proven solutions to problems such as pedestrian safety and traffic congestion, she said.
“We need to invest in what we know works,” Zivarts said, “like transportation and sidewalks.”