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A fatal autonomous vehicle crash casts doubt on technology

We may be heading down the road toward autonomous vehicles being a fact of everyday life, but a recent crash that caused a fatality may make that road longer than expected.

Safety and consumer groups are split on the benefits of autonomous cars, but despite the recent tragedy, advocates believe they will eventually eliminate highway deaths.

What happened

An autonomous vehicle operated by the Uber ride-sharing company struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, on March 18. Several automakers are testing similar cars in Arizona because there are fewer restrictions there than in other states. The crash still occurred even though a trained driver was at the wheel, ready to take over in case of emergency. The investigation into the Tempe accident is under way, but police explain that the victim was walking her bicycle on a center median. She stepped into the roadway unexpectedly, and the vehicle struck her.

A history of accidents

There have been more than a dozen accidents involving autonomous cars in California, one of which resulted in the death of a former Navy SEAL. Investigators divided the blame for that crash between the car's autopilot system and the operator who was supposed to react in the event of an impending emergency.

Public skepticism

Fatalities involving autonomous vehicles such as the one that occurred in Tempe are widely reported, and a consultant firm in Detroit, Michigan, finds that the public lacks confidence in this technology. In a survey conducted by the firm, 55 percent of respondents reported that they probably would not purchase an autonomous car.

Loss of loved ones

The advocates of autonomous vehicles contend that designers will perfect future models to the point that the vehicles will not need steering wheels or pedals that someone could use in an emergency situation. It is enormously difficult for families who lose loved ones because of negligent drivers in traditional car crashes. It is hard to imagine how people will cope with losing a loved one in a crash caused by a driverless car.

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