Last Sunday, Elaine Herzberg, a homeless woman in Arizona, became the first person to be killed by an autonomous vehicle. The sobering event was something of a watershed moment for a decade of fanfare surrounding the development of self-driving cars. Ride services and automakers should face increasing questions not only about the safety of AVs—the public must also reexamine the historically unprecedented priority now given to private automobiles in metropolitan areas.
The Uber-owned Volvo SUV that killed Herzberg in Tempe that evening held a person behind the wheel capable of taking control, and hit her near the intersection of two wide surface roads curving through a typical suburban landscape: to the east, an expanse of open space with trails and other recreational uses and to the west office parks stretching to the city line. It was a place one would expect to find deserted on a Sunday night, and not even the kind of environment that normally attracts homeless people. Nevertheless, Elaine Herzberg was there and “she came from the shadows right into the roadway,” as Temple Police Chief Sylvia Moir told reporters at a press conference following the incident.
We might ask Silicon Valley engineers what the point is of a self-driving car that’s supposed to be better than a human if it can’t “see” past the visual spectrum. (Some cars sold today, like the Audi A6 and the BMW 7 Series, have night vision systems, which are also available as aftermarket modifications). We might call for more regulation and oversight of the AV testing process, as CityLab, NPR, and others did.
We might do all that and more, but never focus on the real issue: Herzberg’s death, and the police assigning blame to her instead of the operator of the large vehicle moving 38 miles per hour, slightly exceeding the posted speed limit. Then there are any of the basic failures of AVs that wouldn’t allow them to pass a driving test—their inability to always stop at red lights, easily merge into traffic, navigate bridges or snow, get around without proper road markings, understand temporary cones and construction, avoid potholes, or deal with other unanticipated safety issues.
In truth, Herzberg’s death was little different from the other 30,000 or so deaths of pedestrians, cyclists, and other motorists that will occur this year as a result of automobiles. A few years ago, Boston (which brands itself as “America’s walking city”) Mayor Marty Walsh, when asked about traffic fatalities in the city, remarked, “You have to understand, cars are going to hit you.” This attitude is also the attitude of many American mayors, despite the popularity of adopting Vision Zero programs aimed at reducing road deaths.
The conservative luminary Russell Kirk called cars “mechanical Jacobins.” While Kirk’s all-too-brief 1962 essay concerned the automobile’s effect on culture, the car has been at its most revolutionary in overturning common law, in exiling people to narrow or non-existent sidewalks and, in truly totalitarian fashion, running over all who resist. The Canadian Tory George Grant went so far as to assert that the “directors of General Motors and the followers of Professor Marcuse sail down the same river in different boats.” I don’t entirely agree with this idea, but in the case of the automobile it is literally true.
As Hunter Oatman-Stanford argues, mass automobile ownership ushered in a revolution in law. Streets were once understood to be public spaces all had equal right to use and in the case of a crash the common law (following common sense) would assign liability to the operator of the heavier and faster vehicle. Since streets were public property, in cities children often played in them—so by 1930 more than 200,000 people had been killed by cars and most of the victims were children.
But the automakers looked at the rapidly expanding cemeteries and thought only of the how the negative publicity would affect sales. Taking swift action, they spent heavily on public relations and formed task forces and committees ostensibly designed to promote safety and responsible regulations. In fact they exiled people from the streets and overturned common law decisions: Now it would be up to the pedestrian or cyclist to avoid getting hit; pedestrians could be fined for walking against the lights or crossing the street outside of the crosswalk. When a car mounted the curb and crashed into a building—the building didn’t get out of the way in time, apparently—it would be written off as an unavoidable “accident.”
Today, the revolution of Kirk’s mechanical Jacobins continues unabated. Drivers still routinely murder children with virtual impunity. Across the country it has become all too common for drivers who kill people not to face any consequences, much less be charged with vehicular manslaughter. In Minnesota, for example, the Star-Tribune found that between 2010 and 2014, drivers crashed into pedestrians over 3,000 times, killing 95 people—but only 28 drivers were charged. In many cases involving a death, the driver wasn’t issued so much as a traffic ticket. In Atlanta, according to Aeon, a woman walking her three children home was charged with vehicular manslaughter and faced three years in prison for the death of her four-year-old son. The driver who hit them—a man blind in one eye, on painkillers, and with alcohol in his system—spent six months in jail for hit-and-run.
The technical issues involved in Herzberg’s death may or may not be solved by AV engineers—and even if they are, it won’t matter. The fundamental safety flaw in the automobile has never been human error, but the shared attitude of traffic engineers, automakers, politicians, and drivers: this is a culture that prioritizes the speed, convenience, and storage of automobiles over human lives, human flourishing, and human justice.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.