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Toyota suspends autonomous driving tests

The first fatality involving an autonomous Uber car and a pedestrian has sparked discussions over the future of Toyota’s self-driving vehicle testing on public roads.

While Toyota executives emphasised they didn’t know the particulars of the crash, they quickly announced that it was suspending testing of its self-driving vehicle system on California and Michigan streets.

Jim Lentz, Toyota’s Plano-based North American CEO, recently told the Dallas Morning News that it wasn’t doubts about the technology that spurred the auto giant’s move.

“We were concerned that our drivers have been upset,” he said, speaking from the New York Auto Show. “We’ll go back into testing as soon as our drivers are ready to get back behind the wheel.”

Lentz said that even the test cars in complete self-driving mode typically have two drivers and two steering wheels.

Lentz said that although Toyota doesn’t know about the specifics about the Arizona crash, the questions it raises are interesting.

While he doesn’t expect that the crash will slow down the automaker’s timeline, but it has forced drivers and regulators to think about their appetite for risk.

How quickly autonomous cars will be rolled out for the general public, Lentz said, will be “based primarily on two things.” Neither of them have anything to do with the technology.

“One is cost,” he said. “Today, autonomous vehicle systems are $100,000 to $150,000—those costs have to come down before you have widespread use.”

“The second is how many high-profile accidents like the one in Arizona lawmakers are willing to stomach to save more lives in the long run.”

“My thinking on policy is, we believe first and foremost that autonomous cars are there to save lives—not to put Uber drives out of business,” Lentz said. “Autonomy could technically save 35,000 lives a year, but it won’t be perfect and people will lose their lives.”

“Even if you save a net, as a government policy are you willing to accept other similar accidents?” he said. “If the answer is, ‘No,’ I think that’s going to slow down the adoption of these (higher level) autonomous vehicles.”

Still, Lentz said cars are evolving to be closer to autonomous, even if they don’t fully drive themselves.

“Today we have emergency braking and a host of sensors, which are a precursor to autonomy,” he said. “That next step, in our case, is this guardian mode, where you will be in control of your car but they will prohibit you from making a big mistake—stop you from turning down a one-way street.”

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Fatality raises safety concerns

One of Uber’s autonomous cars

Automakers and tech companies are evaluating whether or not to suspend their autonomous vehicle programs in the aftermath of the first fatality involving a self-driving vehicle, an accident that has raised safety concerns. 

In reaction to the fatal accident involving an Uber autonomous vehicle, Arizona officials said they do not see an immediate need to modify rules on the testing of self-driving cars in the state.

On Tuesday, Arizona’s director for policy and communications at the state’s department of transportation, Kevin Biesty, said existing regulations were sufficient and that the state had no immediate plans to issue new rules.

“We believe we have enough in our laws right now to regulate automobiles,” Biesty told Reuters. “There will be issues that the legislature will have to address in the future as these become more widespread.”

Meanwhile, both Uber and Toyota Motor Corp said it will pause autonomous vehicle testing following the accident.

Toyota said the incident could have an “emotional effect” on its test drivers: “This ‘timeout’ is meant to give them time to come to a sense of balance about the inherent risks of their jobs.”

The fatal accident is drawing attention to questions about the safety of autonomous vehicle systems, and the challenges of testing them on public streets.

Self-driving cars have been involved in minor accidents, with nearly all of them being blamed on human motorists hitting the autonomous vehicle. 

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