That someone would die in a ‘self-driving' car was as inevitable as the furore that has followed. Yet, as tragic as the death of Tesla owner Joshua Brown is, there remains no question in my mind that autonomous cars are a part of all our futures.
The reasons are boiled down easily: they will be safer, they will be less polluting and they will reduce congestion. All three arguments are too appealing to governments and lawmakers to ignore, no matter how difficult the path is to getting there.
That path is well laid out now. Tesla is at the forefront of the movement, but it's worth stressing that Autopilot has always been billed as a driver aid, not a fully autonomous technology that allows you to surrender the need to be in charge of your vehicle. Almost every car maker is on a path to having a car on sale that allows you to take your hands off the steering wheel for brief periods within the next three years, your feet off the pedals as well in the next five to ten years and to switch your brain off entirely and let the car do the work in the next 10-15 years.
The potential problems along the way are many and varied, and many will be tested in the wake of Brown’s death - not least the question of liability in an accident. In this specific case much will come down to the exact circumstances which have yet to be determined (there are unproven suggestions Brown was watching a movie). What is clear, though, is that neither he nor Tesla’s Autopilot system successfully did the jobs they were meant to be doing: him paying attention to the road surroundings and the car scanning and reacting to the road conditions. The lawyers are already lining up to have a field day, while the engineers and scientists behind the technology are working to come up with ever-better solutions.
The lawyers' gain will likely be short-term, though. Tesla is already pointing to the fact that its cars with Autopilot engaged had traveled 130 million miles without a fatal accident being recorded, against an American average of 94m miles. Statistics can be pulled in all sorts of different ways, of course, but the message there is simple enough. This is a journey that is worth taking; the gains at the end of this period of transition are too great to ignore and a path to fully autonomous cars dominating our roads will eventually be found.