Driverless Cars – Safety Failures

In a recent report the US National Transportation Safety Board outlined its conclusions regarding another fatal crash involving a ‘driverless car’. The vehicle had its cruise control set to 75 mph but was travelling slower at first as another vehicle was in front. At some point, the driverless car veered to the left and when it no longer detected another vehicle in front, it accelerated to 71 mph but, regrettably, hit a barrier and caught fire. A ‘safety driver’ was in the Tesla car but it is thought that he was playing a game on his mobile phone and so did not react in time to prevent the crash. The driver died subsequently from his injuries. This may have been a combination of the shortcomings of technology, over reliance by a driver on driving aids and perhaps the boredom to which such technology leads with the result that a driver seeks a distraction.

Photo of dog sitting in the driving seat of a car - owner driven to despair
Driverless but dogless cars take to the road

In earlier articles, I referred to the incredible sequence of failures that led to the death of a pedestrian [2] and the fact that newer cars, not just Tesla, have on going issues with the technology underpinning driving aids [3]. Some of those aids are helpful but others display the type of faults or shortcomings that lead to accidents and/or complacency by the ‘driver’.

More instances of crashes are appearing, involving so called driverless cars. Those include crashes into stationary or parked cars and fire engines.

Semi Autonomous Driving Aids are not Designed for Complex Situations

Driving aid technology has not reached the stage at which it can handle all types of road designs and situations. For example, the current technology used for semi autonomous driving aids is not designed for use in complex road junctions. It is perhaps an error for us to talk about ‘driverless cars’ as we are not apparently at that stage of advanced technology. This was summed up by Robert L. Sumwalt, Chairman of the Board, at a meeting of the National Transportation Safety Board when he spoke about the accident above;

This tragic crash clearly demonstrates the limitations of advanced driver assistance systems available to consumers today. There is not a vehicle currently available to US consumers that is self-driving. Period. Every vehicle sold to US consumers requires to driver to be actively engaged in the driver driving task, even when partial driving automation systems are on … It ‘s time to stop enabling drivers in any partially automated vehicle to pretend that they have driverless cars. Because they don’t have driverless cars.

Robert L. Sumwalt, addressing a board meeting of the National Transportation Safety Board 25/02/2020

The investigation revealed several factors in this sad case including the slow repair to the barrier and possible other personal contributory factors.

Are Tests Taking Place on UK Roads in Vehicles with Similar Faults?

Although the accidents noted in this and earlier articles occurred in the USA, are such cars or other vehicles being tested or planned to be tested in the UK, even though such vehicle are unlikely to do not have effective safety systems and backups for emergencies? Should the following be acted upon:

  • How will manufacturers and designers ensure that the driver is not being distracted? That is not an easy task but is an essential requirement;
  • Should we erase the term ‘driverless cars’ to prevent over reliance on and complacency about the technology?

New Technology and Complacency in our Workplaces

Automation of tasks in the workplace can also lead to over reliance on technology, boredom and a higher risk of injury and/or quality issues. This is perhaps better known and attempts were made by many companies that adopted new technology to reduce the risk of boredom and mental fatigue caused by the same type of issues. While the parallel with high technology cars may not be directly comparable, it is a salutary reminder that over reliance on technology can lead to serious consequences. Have you considered this angle recently in your health and safety assessments?

If you have a view on this topic please add a polite and brief comment.

[1] ‘Tesla accused of’ ‘ignoring’ autopilot concerns before fatal crash’ The Daily Telegraph 26th February 2020 Business Section Page 3 by Olivia Rudgard in San Francisco
[2] ‘Driverless Car or Lax Driver?’ 26th November 2019, article in HR Management Dimensions Blog
[3] ‘Driverless = Discretionless Vehicle‘ 8th November 2019, article in HR Management Dimensions Blog

© 2020 Jim Harrington of HR Management Dimensions

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