uber self-driving car fatal crash
This March 19, 2018 still image taken from video provided by ABC-15, shows investigators at the scene of a fatal accident involving a self driving Uber car on the street in Tempe, Ariz. Police in the city of Tempe said Monday, March 19, 2018, that the vehicle was in autonomous mode with an operator behind the wheel when the woman walking outside of a crosswalk was hit. (ABC-15.com via AP)
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An Uber self-driving car has struck and killed a pedestrian in the first death involving a fully autonomous test vehicle, prompting the ride-hailing company to suspend road-testing of such cars in the US and Canada.

The accident in suburban Phoenix could have far-reaching consequences for the development of self-driving vehicles, which have been billed as potentially safer than cars with humans at the wheel.

The Volvo SUV was in self-driving mode with a human back-up operator behind the wheel on Sunday night in Tempe when a woman walking a bicycle was hit, police said.

Elaine Herzberg, 49, died in hospital.

Uber suspended its self-driving vehicle testing in the Phoenix area, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto.

The testing has been going on for months as car makers and technology companies compete to be the first with cars that operate on their own.

The scene of the uber self-driving car crash in Tempe, Arizona (Chris Carlson/AP)
The scene in Tempe, Arizona (Chris Carlson/AP)

Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi expressed condolences on his Twitter account and said the company is working with local police on the investigation.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said they are sending teams to investigate.

The crash could be a setback for autonomous vehicle research and may lead to stricter regulations from states and the federal government, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina professor who studies the technology.

But he said more than 100 people die each day on US roads in crashes of human-driven vehicles.

“That’s a real contrast that we should keep in mind about this,” he said. “We should be concerned about automated driving. We should be terrified about human driving.”

The federal government has voluntary guidelines for companies that want to test autonomous vehicles, leaving much of the regulation up to states.

Many states, including Michigan and Arizona, have taken a largely hands-off approach, hoping to gain jobs from the new technology, while California and other states have taken a harder line.

Uber self-driving car in fatal crash
Uber suspended its self-driving vehicle testing in the Phoenix area, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto (Eric Risberg/AP)

California is among states that require manufacturers to report any incidents during the autonomous vehicle testing phase. As of early March, the state’s motor vehicle agency had received 59 such reports.

Arizona governor Doug Ducey used light regulations to entice Uber to the state after the company had a shaky rollout of test cars in San Francisco. Arizona has no reporting requirements.

Hundreds of vehicles with automated driving systems have been on Arizona roads.

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Mr Ducey’s office expressed sympathy for Ms Herzberg’s family, and spokesman Patrick Ptak said: “Public safety is our top priority.”

The crash in Arizona is not the first involving an Uber autonomous test vehicle. In March last year, an Uber SUV flipped on to its side, also in Tempe.

No serious injuries were reported, and the driver of the other car was cited for a violation.

Ms Herzberg’s death is the first involving an autonomous test vehicle but not the first in a car with automated control features.

Voluntary guidelines?

The driver of a Tesla Model S was killed in 2016 when his car, operating on its Autopilot system, crashed into a lorry in Florida.

The NTSB said driver inattention was to blame, not the vehicle’s autopilot system. The agency said car makers should have safeguards that keep drivers engaged.

The Transportation Department is considering further voluntary guidelines it says would help foster innovation. Proposals also are pending in Congress, including one that would stop states from regulating autonomous vehicles, Mr Smith said.

Peter Kurdock, director of regulatory affairs for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety in Washington, called the Arizona crash tragic.

He said the accident should serve as a “startling reminder” to members of Congress that they need to “think through all the issues to put together the best bill they can to hopefully prevent more of these tragedies from occurring”.

What do you think?

Should we put a brake on self-driving cars? Or is their safety record good despite this tragic accident? Let us know what you think in the comments box below.

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7 COMMENTS

  1. There is bound to be an overwhelming negative reaction to this. And of course it’s terrible a lady lost her life. But we don’t know the circumstances of the accident and it would be wrong to jump to conclusions about the technology.

    But I think this quote from the article nailed it. “We should be concerned about automated driving. We should be terrified about human driving.”

  2. Agree with Tony C – Need to know the situation rather than generalise about the whole Autonomous Car future.

    Was the accident avoidable? Did the driver see the developing hazard? Did the car see it? Could either have reacted in time to avoid it?

    Emerging details on other sites are casting doubt on the car being at fault – or at best even able to react:
    https://arstechnica.com/cars/2018/03/police-chief-uber-self-driving-car-likely-not-at-fault-in-fatal-crash/

    The other thing to consider – Self Driving cars are not designed to be flawless in every situation. They make some assumptions about perceived hazards such that pedestrians would endeavour to preserve their own life and therefore not walk into roads in front of vehicles. The only measure we can use is that they are safer than the human operators. We need more information to determine if that is the case in this situation.

  3. If an animal killed a human it would be put down and incinerated, will the same be true of AI driven cars?

  4. Need to have the actual facts, who’s at fault. Could any driver, AI have prevented it?
    Once known then time to think.
    Me, I hope they continue and improve, I hope this is the last accident but?
    Sadness for the casualty.

  5. Well why would you want self drive cars anyway? I am also concerned about electric cars self drive or human driver. Suffering fron hearing loss I do not hear them as easily. All electric cars should have a noise generator of some kind that is switched on whilst moving. More people will be injured and killed as a result of electric cars. Anyway we don’t have the energy reserves to charge cars in their millions. Better public cheap transport should be everywhere.

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