Autonomous cars have clocked thousands of hours and millions of miles without having an accident. In fact, one of the original reasons for developing autonomous cars was to lower automobile accident rates. (According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2016 more than 37,000 people died in traffic-related accidents in the U.S. alone.)
Yet, despite all the precautions, technology, testing, training, and resources, an autonomous car operated by Uber (with an emergency backup driver behind the wheel) hit and killed a pedestrian on a street in Tempe, Arizona. This is the first reported pedestrian death that is linked to autonomous driving, and a stark reminder that the technology is still in an experimental stage. Although the technology has been around now for close to a decade, there are many unpredictable situations that the cars have not yet been programmed to handle. Many of these situations also present ethical dilemmas, as well as life-and-death decisions.
Uber has suspended testing the autonomous cars in Tempe, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Toronto. Toyota has also suspended its autonomous driving program.
What will be the impact on the public perception and the technology?
Group Activities and Discussion Questions:
- Discuss the pros and cons of autonomous cars with students.
- Show a video from Uber that explains its autonomous car project: https://youtu.be/27OuOCeZmwI
- Discuss public relations and crisis communications.
- Have student go online to read comments and stories about the accident.
- What statements did Uber make? What additional statement were made by other autonomous car companies?
- Did Uber take appropriate action following the accident?
- Divide students into teams. Have each team prepare a crisis communications plan for Uber. Include in the plan: spokespeople, news outlets, key message statements, timing of responses, social media, etc.
Source: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, other news sources