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Are autonomous cars and human drivers a deadly combination?

Technology often leads to improvement in the way people work and live, but the experimental and developmental phases can sometimes be shaky. Usually, the testing of new technologies occurs behind closed doors. But sometimes it doesn't, and, as two high-profile car accidents have demonstrated in recent weeks, the consequences can be deadly.

In March, in two separate incidents, the testing of semi-autonomous cars resulted in human fatalities. On March 18, a self-driving car owned by Uber Technologies Inc. struck a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. The victim died. At the time of the accident, there was a safety driver in the car, behind the wheel.

Less than a week later, a Tesla Inc. sport utility vehicle was being driven near Mountain View, California. The operator, who was seated behind the wheel, had engaged the semiautonomous system. The vehicle crashed into a barrier on the highway and killed the operator.

Experts are particularly troubled by these car accidents because the people inside the vehicles should have been able to take control at any time and prevent the accidents. But they didn't. As much as these accidents represent the potential pitfalls of a developing technology, what they really highlight is the human nature of complacency. In both cases, the drivers were lulled into a false sense of security and trusted too heavily in the vehicles' technology to keep them - and others - safe on the road.

Both accidents are still being fully investigated. But, neither bodes particularly well - from a legal standpoint - for the companies involved. It seems that, until the technology is better developed to withstand human error, semi-autonomous cars are yet another hazard about which California motorists must be concerned.

Source: Wall Street Journal, "Tesla, Uber deaths raise questions about the perils of partly autonomous driving," Tim Higgins, Mike Spector and Mike Colias, April 2, 2018

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