Is it ever OK to let bad software kill good drivers?

While we do not have the necessary scientific evidence to support the pro-robot-car PR statements that good software saves bad drivers, we must quickly get clear about this question:

Is it ever O.K. to let bad software maim and kill good drivers?

This is not a philosophical question but a pragmatic one. Because if we understand that letting faulty software slip through the crack and operate vehicles without proper quality certification practices, car crashes will occur and people will die.

It’s already happening. There are over 250 wrongful death lawsuits against Toyota because people were trapped and/or killed when they found themselves stuck in a runaway car they couldn’t bring under control.

As you read unsubstantiated claims about how much safer it is for us to be driving in cars run by software, remember that:

  • we don’t know that for sure
  • we do know that software is killing people
  • when software malfunctions, it is usually the driver who is deemed at fault (with no easy way to mount a defence)
  • because car crashes triggered by malfunctioning software kills in “onesies and twosies” (small numbers at a time), we are not collectively getting the full story

At the very least, car software should be built using the same rigorous processes as used by the aerospace industry.

There are thousands of complaints recorded by drivers that their cars have suddenly accelerated and in many cases they were unable to regain control. Many times, the runaway car occurred at a low speed. But many have occurred at high speed, and when the driver does not survive the crash, nobody points to the software even though we now know that software fails. (Sorry, that link is a bit technical.)

The software failed in the Toyota runaway car situation for a number of reasons: poorly designed, breaking their own coding rules much of the time, lack of adequate testing along the whole development process….the list goes on. Now, NONE of this has to happen. Airplane software isn’t built in a haphazard way. Nor should car software.

Yes, let’s move — very, very carefully — in the direction of robot cars but let’s put software safety laws in place so that none of us has to pick up the pieces of our loved ones when sloppy software has killed them.

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