a self-driving Uber

On the morning of March 21, video of 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg being run down by a self-driving Uber vehicle in Tempe quickly became the most-watched drama on local television and across the Internet. This should come as no surprise. A barbarous bunch getting more bloodthirsty by the day, we very much enjoy watching people die.

I’m truly sorry if that assessment sounds coarse, but some honesty appears to be in order.

For years, we’ve all read and listened to somber warnings cautioning us that “the following video may be disturbing.” We’ve also grown accustomed to reporters and anchors rationalizing about the “news value” of such videos – as if Joe on his sofa clicking on his iPad is also a National Transportation Safety Board engineer in his spare time, probing whether Uber’s lidar laser sensors were operating properly in Herzberg’s death.

The truth? There’s only a handful of crash investigators in the world. The rest of us just like watching accident porn. And then gossiping about it online or with friends.

The chatter about this incident, which marks the first time a pedestrian has been killed by a self-driving vehicle operating in autonomous mode, frequently has touched on the relative safety of driverless cars versus human operators. Over and over, we have heard how Americans at the wheel claimed about 37,000 lives in 2016 – including 897 fatalities in Arizona – while, thus far, driverless cars have killed one person.

To put it mildly, that’s a really dumb argument, statistically speaking.

That’s because people in the United States drove more than 3 trillion miles in 2016, according to federal statistics. Doing the math, that means human drivers caused 1.18 fatalities for every 100 million miles driven. And self-driving vehicles?

In December, Uber announced its autonomous vehicles had just passed 2 million miles driven. That was a few weeks after Waymo, the other big player in autonomous vehicles, announced passing mile number 4 million.

“We’re finally hitting our stride,” Eric Meyhofer, the head of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, told Forbes in December. “We’re about 84,000 miles a week on the street at this point.”

Currently, Uber’s self-driving program in Arizona has been temporarily put on hold pending investigations by the Tempe Police, the NTSB and the National Highway Safety Administration – plus lots of posturing by state and federal politicians and bajillions of clickbait clicks by Joe on his sofa. As for the media, expect this story to continue to be big news for a few days, because it’s perfect fodder for the newest trend in journalism: the “what you need to know” list.

Newfangled reporters and editors love these lists – usually accompanied by clicky photo galleries – because they’re much easier to compile than actual stories. Plus, they’re way faster to read while you’re sitting on your couch half-watching another Suns loss and half-watching video of a 49-year-old woman emerging from the shadows near Mill Avenue and Curry Road, walking her bicycle into the path of Uber’s self-driving Volvo SUV.

Uber’s “human safety driver” – a 44-year-old convicted attempted armed robber born Rafael Vasquez, but who now identifies as Rafaela – appears distracted in the video, looking away from the road, perhaps at the laptop the company provides for note-taking and vehicle routing, or maybe at a cellphone. The last frames of the video shows Vasquez’s horrified face in the final moments before impact.

The video that should be required viewing? Footage of the rest of us clicking away to watch one of our neighbors lose her life. Why do I get the sense that far too many of us look amused at the sight?

– David Leibowitz has called the Valley home since 1995. Contact david@leibowitzsolo.com.

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