Today’s “Planet Earth Report” –Uber’s Driverless Car Tragedy –‘The Larger Lessons’

 

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“People punish the machine more harshly for mistakes than they do humans,” says Cade Massey of the University of Pennsylvania.


The story from Tempe, Ariz., is terrible. A woman crossing a street outside the boundaries of a crosswalk — something that many of us do — was hit by a driverless Uber car and killed. The car’s computer may have lacked the ability to recognize a person where a person wasn’t technically supposed to be, and Uber’s emergency driver in the car evidently failed to override the computer.

 

For the victim’s friends and family, there are no larger lessons, writes David Leonhardt, Op-Ed Columnist in the New York Times, only tragedy. For the rest of us, however, the larger lessons are vital. We need to figure out how to avoid future tragedies, given the increasing use of driverless cars.

To me, writes Leonhardt, there are two main lessons: First, driverless-car companies should redouble their efforts on safety. Uber — which has a track record of arrogance — did the right thing by suspending driverless tests in Arizona and elsewhere until it understands what went wrong. It shouldn’t focus only on the specific issues in the Tempe crash. The company should also ask what other lurking problems may exist.

 

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Second, everyone — policymakers, the media, the public — should recognize how the Tempe crash may feed a dangerous pattern of irrationality: Human beings are quick to rationalize their own errors and quick to obsess over a machine’s errors.

When a machine makes an error, human beings are reluctant to use it again, as research by Massey and others has shown. When people make a mistake, they often persuade themselves that they know how to avoid repeating it — even when there is abundant evidence that they don’t, and they will go on repeating it. Sometimes, machines are more reliable than people, but people still insist on being in control.

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