It is the first time that a self-driving car, operating in fully autonomous mode, has killed a pedestrian. Sylvia Moir, the police chief of Tempe, announced on Tuesday that Uber was likely not at fault for the collision. But after her department released footage of the collision on Wednesday, transportation experts said it showed a “catastrophic failure” of Uber’s technology.
The two stories did not perform equally in the press. By the middle of the week, the Uber news had drifted off the front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN. It often sat near the middle or bottom of the page on Techmeme, a website that aggregates technology news from dozens of outlets. The Cambridge Analytica story, meanwhile, consistently clanged around above the fold of every outlet. I found myself asking: Why?
Perhaps it’s because people still mostly believe the hype around self-driving cars. This isn’t surprising: I still mostly believe the hype. Statistically speaking, cars of all types are super-ubiquitous, high-speed murder machines. Automobiles kill about 102 Americans every day, according to government data. “Accidents,” a category which includes car crashes, are the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, according to the CDC.
Nor are nondrivers exempt from the carnage. Nearly 6,000 pedestrians were killed by a car in the United States in 2016. Hundreds of cyclists die every year as well.
So maybe the relative lack of coverage of the Uber crash represents a healthy perspective. It suggests, perhaps, that journalists and the public understand the difference between anecdote and data. Sixteen Americans die every day while walking near a street. Most of us never learn their names. What makes Elaine Herzberg different?
Not to give the American press too much credit. Surely the Facebook story dominated the news cycle because it is a tendril of the much bigger story, of the ungainly leviathan that oozed to the center of our national attention two years ago and has never departed. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is a story about the 2016 election. Of course we can’t get enough of it.
Yet perhaps we’re wrong to treat them as two different stories at all. Americans once decided to let Facebook operate with more or less free rein, and we are now paying the price for its lack of governance. Will we grant Uber, and the broader self-driving car industry, the same power? This is the thread that joins Facebook and Uber’s nightmares. Pull at it, and the entire way we think about technology in America starts to unravel.
The Uber collision was a tragedy for the Herzberg family, who have said they may try to press criminal charges. But for the self-driving car industry, it was more or less an inevitability.
Almost alone among emerging technologies, the self-driving-car industry is pursuing a clear and seemingly attainable goal. Even as the timelines for other new products—MOOCs, lab-grown meat, virtual reality—have lengthened, self-driving cars remain stubbornly on track for mass deployment. Waymo’s autonomous cars have driven more than 4 million miles on public roads. Several automakers, including Ford and BMW, have pledged to sell self-driving cars to consumers by 2021.