It’s not a stretch to say that profitability and long term success of ride sharing companies is linked to safe autonomous vehicles. Uber would be extremely profitable if it weren’t for all of the drivers it has to pay. The transition to driverless cars is going to be longer than Uber hopes and as painful as everyone expects.
Uber is hoping to pave the way towards a smooth transition to driverless cars though an industry first “Saftey case”, a universal framework for developing safe driverless vehicles. They want the rest of the industry to follow.
The move is a reaction to one of its self driving cars killing a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona in 2018. It was one of the first recorded deaths by an autonomous even though there was someone behind the wheel. The program was shut down for 9 months.
In an attempt to win back and earn the trust of the public, Uber has shared their plan for how they’ll develop safe autonomous systems.
Rather than separately address the hardware, software, testing, simulation, or human training as separate components in an automated system—something standardization bodies like the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) are already doing—it places them within a single, larger safety framework. Uber’s safety guidelines end up looking like a cross between a checklist and a decision tree, with each item flowing from that premise that its vehicles are safe to drive on public roads.
Today the automotive industry has a self certification model, that doesn’t rely on the government giving official approval.
Uber is not looking to change this and theoretically this industry wide approach could ensure the highest degree of safety when there is massive technological uncertainty.
Uber’s Safety Case is the right thing, but at the wrong time
Without real-world experience, it’s difficult for regulators to simply mandate best practices in the burgeoning autonomy industry.
Right now the autonomous vehicle industry is just starting out. The average person might think that we’re getting self driving cars but the reality is that in the real world this safety case doesn’t matter at all right now.
The automotive industry really doesn’t know when autonomous vehicles will really be ready to drive the streets of our cities on their owns. Everyone has their goals posts, even I have my assumptions about how far out we are, but Uber’s safety card is a flashy bit of PR that’s being proposed with out enough data.
Uber isn’t completely wrong, eventually the industry will have something similar to what Uber has proposed and it will be guided by regulations. The timing just makes it all too clear that this is a PR move to regain public trust. If the guidelines go anywhere or not, the transparency that Uber is providing is admirable, even if its completely self serving.
If we think back to the early days of aviation and were able to peek into Wilbur Wright’s bicycle shop near Kitty Hawk. Imagine dropping off a 2 inch binder full of amazing ideas about the aviation industry in 2019 along with a well intentioned note saying: Have the use cases for that been verified by stakeholders?