Elaine Herzberg’s Death Isn’t Uber’s Tragedy. It’s Ours.

No one knows when self-driving cars will work. Until then, people are the solution.

Alex Roy

There are two kinds of tragedies: those from which nothing is learned, and those that lead to change. Now that a pedestrian has been killed by a self-driving car, let’s dispense with the fiction that safety is a primary motivation in their development. Before Elaine Herzberg’s body was cold, the self-driving lobby raced to massage the narrative: you can’t make an omelette without brea—

You know the rest. Disgusting. These people should be ashamed.

You know who else should be ashamed? Those rushing to condemn self-driving cars. Why? Because nine other human beings were struck and killed by human-driven cars in Arizona just in the last week, and none of Uber's critics said a word.

Elaine Herzberg's death isn't Uber's tragedy, it's ours.

In a country wracked by binary thinking and clickbait-driven media run by whores, a shining beacon of truth must be lit and held high when tragedy strikes. We do not yet know all the facts of Herzberg’s death, but we can see its contours, and we know that all ten deaths are part and parcel of the same tragedy, which is one of dehumanization.

If evil is rooted in the dehumanization of others, then both sides of the self-driving debate are guilty. Uber, for financing The Producers of self-driving, a slapped-together farce whose true cost isn’t borne by the investors but by those chained to their seats for a show they didn’t sign up for. The Luddites, for confusing the privilege to drive with the right to do so, then pretending safety is a feature you buy rather than a condition you strive for.

Everyone wants agency but not responsibility, the benefits but not the costs, the glory but not the grit.

The omelette-breakers—comprised of virtually everyone in self-driving except Waymo—would have us believe money can shorten the timeline to safety. The Luddites would have us believe one death by experimental machine is worse than 40,000 by human hands.

Waymo Ride on Public Roads
Waymo

Neither side cared about Elaine Herzberg until Monday morning.

It didn’t take long before we learned Elaine Herzberg was homeless, not as context, but as de facto justification for her death. We all know code when we see it. Instead of hoodie, we get plastic bags. What kind of person walks a bicycle covered in plastic bags in the middle of the night in Tempe, Arizona? In a city designed for cars, in a state designed for cars, in a country whose culture is defined by cars?

Someone who has never mattered to human drivers, or stories like this would be at the top of CNN every night.

Sadly, Elaine Herzberg didn’t matter to self-driving developers, either. She may not even have had a phone, and if she did, she wasn’t summoning an Uber to get anywhere. Elaine Herzberg wasn’t in the target user demographic.

Based on the public relations campaign being waged even as we speak, Elaine Herzberg was collateral damage, not only because she was homeless, but because she was car-less. She was jaywalking, from a median where she shouldn’t have been, where the city of Tempe had laid a beautiful paved walkway with a sign saying No Crossing in a city where crosswalks are hundreds of feet apart. Designed for cars, by car people, in a state without an adequate support system, in a country unwilling to address mental health.

I’m not just talking about the schizophrenia or depression afflicting so many of our homeless. I’m talking about the elation untrained drivers feel until they learn physics the hard way, often at the expense of others. The elation investors and idealists feel when they see even a glimmer of a self-driving utopia on the horizon, even if they have to sacrifice the lives of strangers to get there.

Sacrificing people, whether to learn lessons, or in spite of them, is wrong.

These are but two faces of the same dehumanizing logic: either road deaths don’t matter, or they do and self-driving cars are the solution. If road deaths don’t matter then you don’t deserve a seat at the self-driving debate. If they do, then we need an Autonomous Hippocratic Oath.

That’s called regulation.

What’s the right amount? It’s more than we have now, which is basically zero. It’s actually near zero for humans as well, at least in this country. That must change, but the inception point for high human licensing standards may have passed, whereas that day for self-driving cars is here. Right now. We have a choice, because it's being debated in Washington as I write this.

If self-driving cars are intended to be safer than humans, then they must be held to a higher standard. What is that standard, and how can self-driving developers meet it?

We start by having honest conversations about safety, human driving, and self-driving cars.

The responsibility for Elaine Herzberg’s death starts with the leadership of self-driving car companies, 99 percent of whom have exaggerated if not outright lied about their capabilities and timelines. If they can deploy self-driving cars in the next five years, their areas of operation will be so limited and their propagation rate so low as to be irrelevant to the majority of people alive today.

Next in line are the self-driving whores, shills, and “experts” who sprouted from soil well fertilized by VC and OEM dollars, not one of whom has a near-term solution for reducing road deaths, other than hiring them to speak at conferences.

Then we have the media idiots conflating semi-autonomous with autonomous, and the whores and clickbait mills like Business Insider, all pumping the imminent arrival of self-driving cars.

We have the politicians with their gold-plated kneepads begging companies like Uber to come to Arizona to escape the evil clutches of California regulators who are “stifling” competition. You know else allegedly stifled competition? Safety advocates who bitched and moaned about seat belts. And airbags.

What kind of tragedy will Elaine Herzberg’s death be?

If it is to be more than a speed bump on the way to Uber’s IPO, we must all look past panaceas and embrace realistic solutions that can make a difference in the near- and mid-term:

  1. If you want to reduce traffic, invest in mass transit and infrastructure
  2. If you want to reduce pollution, invest in bike lanes, e-bikes, and hybrid and electric vehicles
  3. If you want to improve safety, read this, then read the Human Driving Manifesto, then join the Human Driving Association (for free)

We don’t know how long before self-driving cars will match or exceed human safety, but we do know that lies kill people. The lies car manufacturers told us about Takata airbags, GM ignition switches, and Dieselgate. The lies we tell ourselves every time we let a stranger drive us home, or take our kids to school. America needs a reality check.

Ignore the lies, hot takes, and press releases. Call out BS when you see it. Don’t be afraid of controversy. Pay for real journalism. Demand transparency from self-driving technology companies. Go to a professional driving school. Don’t vote for politicians lining up their post-government consulting jobs with self-driving companies.

There are two ways to see technology; as a means, or as an end. As a means, technology empowers and augments us, every failure a lesson learned. As an end, technology enslaves us, every failure rationalized as serving a higher goal.

Self-driving cars aren't a goal. They’re not even a solution. Self-driving cars are just the newest, shiniest, untested item in a big box of unloved old tools whose use we’ve neglected to master. You can’t fix leaky pipes with a gold-plated hammer—even a self-hammering gold-plated hammer.

I’m all for technology, but only technology that works. I’m also for saving lives. We can save lives without technology, today. We could save even more lives with human-centric semi-autonomous technology, tomorrow.

Or we can wait. Wait and swallow the cactus of self-driving propaganda for however many decades it takes for them to become ubiquitous, slowly replacing 40,000 human-driven deaths with 4,000 autonomous ones.

The Spectre of Autonomous Cars
/DRIVE on NBC Sports

Maybe. The day after tomorrow.

Or we can demand better, right now. Not only of the Ubers of the world, but of ourselves. The moral high ground is staked by those who embody what they demand of others. If Elaine Herzberg matters, then every life matters until Uber figures it out. There’s a good chance they’ll never figure it all out, in which case some humans will be driving, somewhere, forever.

Which means the nine people hit by human-driven cars in Arizona last week, whose names no one has bothered to research because humans killing other humans with cars is old hat, aren’t even close to the last.

Each and every one of us must take personal responsibility for our actions behind the wheel. If we don’t, and Uber does figure this out, there’s a chance human driving will be banned and Facebook will launch a self-driving car service, in which case we’re really screwed.

Why? Because if there's one thing that upsets people more than strangers dying, it's issues of privacy. 

Based on prior behavior, Uber is already the Facebook of transportation, but that’s another story. Or maybe it’s this one; we’ll have to wait for the NTSB report to know for sure.

In the meantime, if Uber doesn't publicly release 100 percent of the data from this event, they should not be trusted. Their history is as shameful as some of the more rotten humans they would seek to replace. If they want us to place our faith in them, they need to earn it.

Which is exactly what we should expect of humans.

Alex Roy—angel investor, Editor-at-Large for The Drive, Host of The Autonocast, co-host of /DRIVE on NBC Sports, author of The Driver and Founder of the Human Driving Associationhas set numerous endurance driving records, including the infamous Cannonball Run record. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.