In an accident of first of its kind a self driving car operated by Uber knocked down and killed a women in Tempe, Ariz., USA. It was the first fatality of a pedestrian struck by such a vehicle on a public road. Yesterday in Tempe, Arizona, a self-driving Uber struck and killed a pedestrian. The vehicle, which has a human operating the steering wheel for parts of the ride, was in self-driving mode when the crash occurred.
The investigation is ongoing, but the Tempe police chief has stated that Uber is “probably” not at fault. In the meantime, Uber has suspended all self-driving tests while the investigation is ongoing.
Even if Uber is eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, this setback, along with all of the other negative publicity the ride-sharing giant has received recently, could be devastating for the company’s progress in an extremely crowded space. The fatality also proves that the self-driving car and autonomous mobility markets still have some significant issues to resolve.
This incident is likely to take on a life of its own in the courts, as well as the court of public opinion, as there is virtually no case established around autonomous driving technology, which is still very much unfamiliar to consumers and is yet to be completely addressed by the regulating authorities.
According to the reports provided by the Tempe police department the vehicle, a Volvo XC90, was operating under “autonomous mode” with a “human safety driver” behind the wheel at the time of the accident. The victim was identified as 49 year women Elaine Herzberg, who was walking with her bicycle in the street outside a crosswalk when the vehicle hit her.
After the accident Uber issued a statement that it has suspended testing of its autonomous vehicle in Tempe, San Francisco, Toronto and Pittsburgh with immediate effect. They said “Our hearts go out to the victim’s family. We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident”. This statement was given by Uber spokeswoman Sarah Abboud.
The vehicle causing meeting the accident was supplied by Volvo and Uber made the necessary software changes to make it fit for autonomous driving. Both the companies will be analyzing the accident as will the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Almost every car company, on the top of technology like Apple and Google, are testing autonomous driving with the idea that the technology will be mature enough to roll out broadly to the public by 2025 and will be the next big thing. The biggest reason given for supporting this technology is that it will lead to fewer accidents as synchronized technologies can react faster than humans in emergency situations. Uber is not only testing SUV’s, but big-rig trucks too. Uber trucks have been carrying cargo on Arizona highways for commercial-freight customers since last year. These trucks operate with a licensed truck driver behind the wheel. But the eventual goal is to eliminate human drivers behind these vehicles. The company has also recently released a video that outlines its plans for driverless trucking. Drivers have been rapidly introduced to the technologies that underpin autonomous driving in piece-meal fashion: collision avoidance tech that uses cameras, sensors and braking to automatically detect fixed objects. This technology also has cruise control that automatically maintains a safe distance from other vehicles, lane keeping tech that reads the line of the roads and alerts the driver when they are drifting out of lanes; and more.
The Tempe accident could establish the first batch of the case law for autonomous vehicles as it is the first public pedestrian fatality. Should the family press a case of liability? It will be a challenge for the courts say lawyers.
“There are not good parallels in the area of emerging technologies and intellectual property where public safety is so paramount,” says Max Sneyd, partner at law firm Kerr Russell in Detroit, who is also the chairman of the firm’s intellectual property practice.
The Tempe incident is the not the first fatality overall as in 2016, a 40 year old Canton, Ohio man was killed in a Tesla vehicle that was being operated in self driving mode. Investigators cleared Tesla for the incident, and said that there was no product defect that made the vehicle model S, subject to recall. But it was also said that over reliance on the self driving feature contributed to fatal crash. There are supporters of this technology as well as critics who say that this technology makes the drivers less careful.
Anuj Pradhan, assistant research scientist at the U M Transport Research Institute, studies autonomous vehicle human factors says that “The main issue is communicating intent between autonomous vehicles and other road users. This is an important issue that is still being researched.” He adds that “The autonomous vehicle needs to infer the intent of a pedestrian form limited information about the pedestrian’s speed, heading, gait, and a host of other features- something that a human driver does quite naturally.”
But the fact that consumers are also making up their minds about who they trust to get the technology right. According to a recent research conducted by AlixPartners, 50% said that they mostly trust tech companies in this space like Google, and Apple, auto companies are trusted by 14% while ride hailing companies like Uber and Lyft were far behind at 1%. New CEO of Uber, Dara Khosrowshahi will now have his hands full as he navigates the future of autonomous driving with the black mark of a fatality from its test program.