Driving the future: Is the testing of self-driving cars on public roads putting you in danger?

SEATTLE -- Efforts are being made right now to bring more testing of self-driving cars to Western Washington, including Bellevue. After a self-driving Uber was involved in an accident that killed a woman in Arizona March 18th, some are asking, could that testing put the rest of us in danger?

Since the deadly crash, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has been accused of making that state the ‘Wild West’ for testing self-driving cars.

Last summer, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed an executive order that's similar to Arizona's, clearing the way to test self-driving vehicles without human operators inside.

We asked to interview the governor about it. His office released this statement:

"Safety is our top priority, that’s why Gov. Inslee issued an executive order on the safe operation and testing of autonomous vehicles. The executive order requires certification with the Department of Licensing, proof of financial responsibility, compliance with all laws and regulations, and equipment to bring the vehicle to a safe condition in the event of a system failure.

"Additionally, the governor signed a bill last week that complements his executive order, by creating an additional workgroup that can explore autonomous vehicle issues while maintaining the state’s commitment to nurturing and cultivating this important innovation that will save lives, improve mobility for the elderly and disabled and serve as an important tool in our efforts to combat climate change."

Others, like Senior Fellow with the Sightline Institute Daniel Malarkey, say it's a risky move. In an Op-Ed in the Seattle Times, Malarkey wrote:

"Last year, Gov. Jay Inslee issued an ill-advised executive order that allows autonomous-vehicle testing in Washington by companies that 'self-certify.' The state gains little by allowing tech companies to test on public roads, and puts motorists and pedestrians unduly at risk."

The accident

The Uber that crashed in Tempe, Arizona was in self-driving mode at the time. Camera footage from inside and outside the SUV shows the vehicle operator behind the wheel -- not driving but responsible for taking control if there's an issue. The operator repeatedly looks down at something in the seconds before a woman walking a bicycle across the street steps into view and is hit.

Elaine Herzberg, 49, died from her injuries.  A financial settlement has been reached between Uber and the daughter and husband of Herzberg.

Police and Uber have not said if there was a breakdown in the vehicle's laser and radar sensors.

The reaction

Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies autonomous vehicles, says, "This is strongly suggestive of multiple failures of Uber and its system, its automated system, and its safety driver."

Uber immediately suspended testing in four cities.

Just weeks before the deadly crash, I asked Uber about how it convinces riders that hopping into a self-driving vehicle will be safer than having a human behind the wheel.

"We do that by making it our fundamental safety requirement," says Dima Kislovskiy, Uber's senior tech program manager of Self-driving Cars. "We must be safer than a human, anywhere we operate."

But, are they safer?

Truth is, we don`t know, because the technology is so new.

While the tragedy in Arizona was the first death involving a fully autonomous vehicle, a Tesla, not fully self-driving but in autopilot mode, slammed into the side of a semi-trailer, killing the driver in Florida in 2016.

The NTSB later ruled , "The combined effects of human error and the lack of sufficient system controls resulted in a fatal collision that should not have happened."

The safety promise

Supporters of self-driving vehicles point to the estimated 40,000 traffic deaths on U.S. roads last year, according to the National Safety Council. Studies have shown more than 90% of those are caused by human error.

Steve Marshall, transportation technology partnership manager for the city of Bellevue, has been in talks with developers of self-driving vehicles to bring a pilot program to the Eastside. He envisions self-driving van pools to carry commuters into Bellevue and self-driving shuttles to ferry people around downtown. He says removing the human mistakes behind the wheel will make us safer.

"You almost have to backup a driver who’s not paying attention," Marshall says. "Making our streets as safe as walking down the sidewalk has to be one of the best things we can do with the technology.”

Public perception

Convincing people it’s safe to ride may be the biggest challenge.

According to a recent study by AAA, 63% of U.S. drivers report feeling afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle -- a high percentage, although that's down from 78% in early 2017.

AAA is leading the charge to bring a self-driving shuttle to Las Vegas. It's also been testing the building blocks of self-driving at a race track in California.

John Milbrath, vice president of automotive services at AAA of Washington, says people fear what they don't know.

“It’s really getting exposure out there to the public so they understand, that this is OK. It’s safe," Milbrath says. "It sounds like really crazy technology, but then you get on the shuttle and it takes you safely to your destination -- that starts to break down these walls.”