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Boeing Crashes Spell Bad News For Autonomous Cars

Safety Technology / 7 Comments

Mercedes chief Dr. Z finds another downside to the 737 MAX safety debacle.

Automakers and tech firms face an uphill battle in convincing the public that self-driving cars will be safe. And events like the recent crashes involving Boeing's airliners don't help them make the case.

That's not just our opinion, but that of one of the top executives in the industry: Mercedes chief Dr. Dieter Zetsche. "What is very important is the psychological dimension," said Dr. Z, as quoted by Reuters. "If you look at what is happening with Boeing then you can imagine what happens when such a system has an incident."

"Even if autonomous cars are 10 times safer than those driven by humans, it takes one spectacular incident to make it much harder to win widespread acceptance," said Zetsche at a conference organized by German publication Auto Motor und Sport in Daimler's home town of Stuttgart.

The incidents to which he referred are two recent crashes involving Boeing's 737 MAX aircraft: one on Lion Air flight 619 out of Indonesia, and another on Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 to Kenya. Both crashes have been attributed to Boeing's MCAS automated anti-stall system, which pilots are believed to have failed to override.

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The two crashes claimed the lives of 346 passengers and crew members between them, prompting authorities to ground the aircraft around the world. Boeing has built 376 examples of the 737 MAX, the fourth generation of the narrow-body jet, following the original 737 launched in 1967, the 737 "Classic", and the 737 Next Generation.

With investigations underway, public trust in computers operating motorized vehicles has taken a hit. According to Reuters' poll, half of adults in the United States think autonomous vehicles are more dangerous than cars and trucks driven by human beings, and two thirds would avoid buying a self-driving car.