Self-driving cars in Sweden – Did the Uber event change Optimism to Pessimism?

Self-driving cars in Sweden – Did the Uber event change Optimism to Pessimism?

Self-driving cars exerting their dominance and becoming a societal standard for vehicles on our streets; so close, yet so far away. On the 18th of march, the wave of optimism that buzzed in the air since the first talks of their implementation came to a sudden halt with Uber’s daring ventures into the field and taking a step too far. When Elaine Herzberg, the victim of one of Uber’s self-driving cars was struck and fatally wounded, the hopeful and the excited of this optimistic project had their foundation shattered into pieces that could only be recovered if proponents of self-driving cars could answer the question that most would want a concrete answer to: is it safe?

A specific target in mind is a country that has been of those daring optimists already harnessing the aspect of self-driven vehicles and implementing it into its public transport- Sweden. It was one of many countries looking forward to its inception at a gradual, yet certain extent. Experimenting with the ideas of self-driven automation was conducted throughout the past several years, with the first physical manifestation presenting itself in 2017 when self-driving buses were finally implemented on the streets of Kista. Swedes were ecstatic when they first propelled forward to ‘’Kistagången’’ in Kista\’s telecom heart with Ericsson, Tele2 and many others next to the door being successful stops en route to a self-driven future.

Self-driving bus in Kista, Sweden.

What was initially interesting about this whole debacle is that researchers, in 2017, predicted that only a couple of years remain until completely self-propelled cars would arrive and change everyday life. Among other things, 90 percent of the cars in towns are predicted to disappear according to researchers. Many, after the tragic event in Arizona, are not convinced as it left many wondering about the, perhaps, most-talked about aspect in this debate; safety. According to safety statistics in relation to the Uber case, the likelihood that an autonomous Uber van would be involved in a fatal accident – if they were as safe as human drivers – was only 3.2 percent, according to a calculation. Similarly, in 2013, 1.25 million people died in traffic worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). About half of them were totally or partially unprotected, i.e. motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians. However, autonomous vehicles have not yet accumulated enough mileage so that they can teach us about how safe they are compared to human drivers.

Göteborgs Posten posted an article earlier this year with the headline ‘’Sweden is ready for self-driving cars’’ and they were, as per various indicators, completely justified in stating so. With the amount of testing, experimenting and debating of the issue, one would have to be a pessimist in thinking that it wouldn’t. Also, notably, due to the audit and consultancy law KPMG that examined 20 important countries and what preparedness they have for the revolution in autonomous vehicle technology. Based on four areas – politics and legislation, technology and innovation, infrastructure and consumer acceptance – the consulting company created an index where Sweden was ranked highly.

What makes Sweden deserve fourth place on the list is that, in relation to its size, it has the highest proportion of companies engaged in self-propelled vehicles, investing heavily in this technology, and which generally have a high level of preparedness to implement it. However, what Uber proved is that one event can completely shatter any signs of optimism and resurface any concerns that were initially had.

Whatever concerns those were, it can best be exemplified by Volvo, a company that has always been regarded as having safety as a prime indicator of its success. It is also relevant as it was precisely in a Volvo SUV that the accident in Arizona was concerned with. The company had been experimenting with these types of cars for years before finally giving them the green light on a more widespread level and one such project was based in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city. Volvo\’s self-propelled cars on the roads in Gothenburg began at the end of last year, when five families received cars with several features reminiscent of self-driving. Since then, Volvo has applied for permission from the Transport Agency to expand the projects. The highlighted fatal accident in Arizona showed that it was a backlash for Volvo in this regard.

The cars run in Gothenburg had some self-driving functions, they could follow their lane on a highway, control when the lane turns, and keep a speed that gives a fair distance ahead. But the driver must have a hand on the wheel, and if the car\’s computer thinks the driver seems inattentive, a small signal appears. The next step would be to move on with more self-driving features – but it may be harder for Volvo to get permission in light of the tragedy.

The burden of proof is on Volvo and the rest of Swedish companies that want this project to see a green light. It is safe to say that whatever atmosphere is created from this accident, it will not be to the advantage of those companies with a driverless future in mind. The statistics are varied on the matter, and are not enough as it stands, but for any hard evidence that is presented, the case of Elaine Herzberg is one that signals the delicate nature of future progress in this area. The overarching project of a driverless future may not be dead, but when death strikes as a direct effect of its reality – the world remains confused and scared.

Daniel Vice

Evolvera – always changing, always evolving.

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