Fatal Uber crash in Arizona is autonomy's Apollo 1 moment

Commentary: Whether we'll get to the moon or not depends on how this is handled.

Andrew Krok Reviews Editor / Cars
Cars are Andrew's jam, as is strawberry. After spending years as a regular ol' car fanatic, he started working his way through the echelons of the automotive industry, starting out as social-media director of a small European-focused garage outside of Chicago. From there, he moved to the editorial side, penning several written features in Total 911 Magazine before becoming a full-time auto writer, first for a local Chicago outlet and then for CNET Cars.
Andrew Krok
2 min read
James Martin/CNET

Despite all the talk about bringing robo-taxis to A City of the Future Near You within the next few years, self-driving cars are still very much in development. We've only just begun seeing how true driverless cars operate in public spaces, and after Monday's fatal autonomous Uber accident in Tempe, Arizona, it could all come screaming to a halt.

History can give us a pretty good idea of what's about to happen here. Apollo 1's command module caught fire and killed all three crew members. Congressional inquiries were launched, and every inch of the fledgling Apollo program was put under scrutiny. The whole thing could have fallen apart, if not for the determination of President Johnson, Gene Kranz and those who re-engineered the living hell out of the Apollo command module.

Fatal accidents or the threats thereof struck the US space program several times thereafter. Apollo 13 barely made it back to solid ground. The crew on the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia were not as lucky. Each time, the future of the space program was brought into question, but invariably, we soldiered on.

Autonomous Volvo for Uber
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Autonomous Volvo for Uber

Uber has been using a fleet of Volvo XC90s for autonomous infrastructure development.

James Martin/CNET

This is the first moment like this for autonomous cars. A car has never killed a pedestrian while operating in autonomous mode before, so we're treading new ground as every minute passes. There could very well be congressional inquiries into how a fledgling technology is being implemented in public spaces, because safety concerns will be at the forefront of this conversation from now on. Until now, most folks have been too caught up in the idea of the future to stop and think about the present.

Perhaps we've all been complicit in urging all companies to push unfinished technology to the public because of the benefits that we perceive will come as a result. Or perhaps Uber, which went to court over stolen trade secrets and caught flak for rolling out its autonomous fleet when it didn't have a permit to do so, is guilty of pushing way too hard in an effort to beat Waymo, currently seen as the front runner in developing true driverless tech.

If tech companies and automakers aren't careful, haste could very well shelve the entire autonomous program for years, or end up shoving it behind a wall of regulations so onerous that any potential payoff (from a business standpoint) begins to evaporate.

How the developers of autonomous vehicles act from here on out will make or break the idea of this happening anytime remotely soon. Let's make sure we still get to the moon.