Harvard Forum Examines Safety Of Self-Driving Vehicles

Published: Friday, May 4, 2018 - 2:25pm

A Harvard University forum has examined how a recent death linked to self-driving technology is causing concern about safety.

"It's a little bit like the Wild West out there right now," said Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council.

Hersman was part of a Friday panel discussion at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health that explored whether the field is advancing too quickly as dozens of companies have begun experimenting on public streets in several U.S. states.

She joined other panelists in expressing optimism that eventually "machines will be better than us" at driving safely, while also worrying about the transition period before the technology is improved and society adapts to it.

Some experts are pointing to the March death of a pedestrian struck by a self-driving Uber vehicle in Tempe, Arizona, as cause for serious safety concern. It was the first death involving a fully autonomous test vehicle.

"It may actually get worse before it gets better," said Jay Winsten, who directs the school's Center for Health Communication. "People will be killed and injured by autonomous vehicles who never would have been without autonomous vehicles."

It's important, however, to not overreact and consider the long-term potential benefits for road safety, said Winsten, who led the 1980s-era marketing campaign to reduce drunk driving by encouraging designated drivers.

Current federal regulations have few requirements specifically for self-driving vehicles, leaving it for states to handle. Some panelists called for stronger regulations, including requiring companies to share more data about how their vehicles are performing.

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