New Baidu, Jaguar Land Rover driverless cars take to the road
Jaguar and Baidu continue with self-driving cars tests despite Uber crash
Jaguar Land Rover does not have plans to halt its self-driving car experiment despite the Uber crash in Arizona

New Baidu, Jaguar Land Rover driverless cars take to the road

Automotive group Jaguar Land Rover and Chinese technology giant Baidu have begun new self-driving car tests this week, despite an autonomous Uber car killing a pedestrian in Arizona last weekend.

Both Uber and Toyota halted driverless car tests in the wake of the Uber accident.

Read more: Toyota halts autonomous car tests after Uber accident

Five Baidu cars took to the road for the first time in Beijing yesterday – just four days after 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was struck and killed by an Uber Volvo that was travelling autonomously in Tempe, Arizona.

Despite the US accident, Beijing has given the go-ahead for Baidu to test driverless cars on 33 roads – the first time a company has been given permission to conduct open-road tests in the Chinese capital. The experimental programme will take place over 65 miles of road in Beijing’s less-populated suburbs.

“With supportive policies, we believe that Beijing will become a rising hub for the autonomous driving industry,” said Baidu VP Zhao Cheng. “We hope to work with more partners to pave the way for the full development of autonomous driving.”

Meanwhile, the UK’s biggest car manufacturer, Jaguar Land Rover – since 2008 a subsidiary of Indian conglomerate Tata – will continue its own autonomous car tests on roads in the Midlands. Among the new features being trialled this week are an emergency braking warning system, said the company.

Earlier this week, the company announced a next-generation car collaboration with technology provider BlackBerry, which has refocused its business on connected vehicle applications.

Read more: BlackBerry, Jaguar Land Rover collaborate on next-gen vehicles

The decision to begin new tests so soon after a fatal accident may alarm drivers and pedestrians wherever autonomous cars are being tested. However, at least one industry figure has come out strongly in support of the safety of the driverless car sector, saying that autonomous vehicles are the solution to the unacceptable record of human drivers.

Chris Urmson, former CTO of Google’s autonomous vehicle division before co-founding Aurora Innovation, said: “Globally 1.2 million people die on the roads. In the US, it’s somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 people.

“That’s the equivalent of a 737 crashing every day. We wouldn’t accept that in air travel, and yet we do on the roads of America every day, so I think the big picture we have to focus on is that the status quo is not acceptable.

“I’ve been working in this space [driverless vehicles] for about 15 years, and from the earliest time it was about saving lives,” he said at the Economist Innovation Summit.

Additional reporting Chris Middleton.

Internet of Business says

Urmson is right to contrast the one autonomous car fatality this year with the many that occur on roads every day throughout the world. Autonomous and connected vehicles may indeed be a long-term solution to that problem, as systems get smarter and safer.

That said, there are roughly 1.2 billion normal cars and commercial vehicles in use in the world, which gives us a figure of exactly one fatality for every one thousand vehicles, using Urmson’s figures for road deaths.

The exact number of autonomous vehicles on the road is unclear, but it is known that 66 cities worldwide are currently either hosting driverless car tests or planning to in the immediate future. Baidu’s test in Beijing uses just five cars, and most road tests have been equally small, or smaller, in other cities.

So, if all 66 cities each have five autonomous cars, then – at present – we have one fatality per 330 driverless vehicles (or fewer) on the road. That’s a death rate three or more times higher than the statistics for human drivers.

But of course, it’s too early to jump to that conclusion based on a single tragic accident, which may prove to be an anomaly – let’s hope so.

However, two questions remain. First, was a catastrophic systems failure responsible for the Uber fatality? Arizona police have released a video of the accident, which experts have said appears to show that the vehicle’s sensors had enough time to detect the pedestrian. This may point to a systems failure.

And second, who – if anyone – is responsible for that failure, and for the woman’s death?

This is the core challenge inherent in all AI systems at present, and it is why we should remain concerned about what happened in Tempe. In most road traffic accidents that are caused by driver error – which is 90 percent of all fatal accidents – it’s relatively easy to ascertain who is responsible.

But with driverless systems, that simply isn’t the case. This is why regulations and the law need to catch up – fast.

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