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Amazon's self-driving cars are coming to downtown Seattle. Safety advocates are not pleased

Katherine Anne Long, The Seattle Times on

Published in Automotive News

Autonomous vehicle companies, including Tesla and Google sister company Waymo, and until recently Uber and Lyft, anticipated a future of driverless robotaxis by as early as 2020.

Technological challenges and legal headaches have complicated those grand plans. So far, an entirely driverless car remains out of reach. Autonomous vehicle companies, though, continue to test-drive their latest designs on public roads.

The risks of such tests were violently demonstrated in 2018 when a self-driving Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona during a test drive. Documents later released by the National Transportation Safety Board showed Uber had not programmed the car to anticipate jaywalkers. Last month, a video circulated widely on social media that showed a Tesla operating in still-under-development autopilot mode careening towards pedestrians blocks away from Amazon's Seattle headquarters.

Amid gathering skepticism over the feasibility of self-driving technologies, Uber and Lyft sold their autonomous vehicle divisions within the past year at what some analysts said were fire-sale prices.

A lack of independent review of crashes in which self-driving cars were involved also makes it difficult to judge the companies' safety claims, said Angie Schmitt, the author of "Right of Way," a book about pedestrian deaths.

 

"They're using pedestrians as guinea pigs in an experiment that can be deadly," Schmitt said. "We would never allow experimental drugs to be tested this way on people who have not explicitly consented, but for some reason, we just haven't applied the same sort of ethical parameters to cars."

Self-driving cars aren't just risky from a safety standpoint, said Anna Zivarts, who serves on the executive committee of the Washington State Autonomous Vehicle Work Group, which was created in 2018 by the Legislature to prepare the state for self-driving cars. Continuing to pour attention and money into these cars distracts from proven solutions to issues like pedestrian safety and traffic congestion, she said.

"We should be investing in things we know work," Zivarts said, "like transit and sidewalks."

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