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After Tesla Crash, Will Driverless Technology Transition Slow?


Transportation officials are investigating what seems to be the first fatal accident of a car that was under the control of an automated system, a Tesla Model S that was being driven by the car's autopilot system and then collided with a tractor trailer. Tesla said the autopilot is simply an assist feature on their Model S and that drivers are advised to keep their hands on the wheel and stay in control at all times.

Now, currently only California, Nevada, Florida, Michigan and the District of Columbia allow driverless technology to be used in passenger vehicles. Will this crash and any questions that it raises slow the development of driverless cars?

Timothy Carone is a teaching professor in the department of IT analytics and operations in University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business. He also wrote "Future Automation: Changes To Lives And To Businesses," which talks about the transition to autonomous systems, including driverless cars and unmanned airplanes. Professor Carone, thanks for being with us.

TIMOTHY CARONE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: The beauty part of driverless cars is that they're supposed to make driving safer, almost without accidents. Does this accident make you reassess that claim?

CARONE: No, it does not. This crash and the fatality is not a surprise to people involved in the industry or in the software development. You know, I think we have to expect that going forward there'll be more incidents like this. And we just need to internalize it that while tragedies are not preventable per se, it's a journey that ends with us having, you know, a number of traffic accidents reduced by, you know, an order of magnitude.

SIMON: There were a number of brave aviators who died in the early 20th century to make the airplane a part of our lives. And now, at any given moment, we're told there are 5,000 flights above the United States alone. Will there be, despite everybody's best efforts, some accidents, even some fatal ones, on the way to developing the driverless car?

CARONE: I think that it's unreasonable to expect that what happened with the Tesla crash in Florida is a anomaly that will only happen a handful of times over the next 10, 15 years. I think we have to expect that there will be accidents, that some of them will be much more tragic. But to your point, just as if planes were as safe now as they were back then, I think we'd have two 747 crashes a day. So I think that I would expect the same dynamic to occur. These crashes will be reduced and we will reach our aspiration of having a far fewer fatal accidents.

SIMON: We've heard for years now that the driverless cars of the future - are we talking about Buck Rogers' future or something that's a lot closer than that?

CARONE: You know, over the next five years, I think we'll start to see more cars on the road. And certainly by 2025, most cars will have this autopilot or driverless ability. Whether or not people decide to use it or to what degree they decide to use it - I think that's an open question.

SIMON: Timothy Carone of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business, thanks so much for being with us.

CARONE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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