Uber Autonomous Vehicle Fatality Could Stall Self-Driving

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Uber autonomous vehicle self-driving car

Uber has halted its self-driving car tests after a pedestrian was killed. A woman in Tempe, Ariz., died on Sunday evening after being hit by a self-driving car operated by Uber when she attempted to cross in front of the car outside a marked crosswalk, according to the New York Times, citing a Tempe police report.

It’s the first known death of a pedestrian struck by a self-driven vehicle on a public road. And it likely will matter little that there was a human “safety” operator behind the wheel at the time, because the Uber car was in autonomous mode.

Uber immediately said it suspended testing of its self-driving cars in Tempe, Ariz., Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto. Other companies testing various forms of autonomous vehicles in many places and phases—ranging from General Motors to Google’s Waymo, from Domino’s to Tesla—are likely to re-examine or at least pause in the pace of their trials to evaluate what happened to the female victim, whose identity hasn’t been made public.

“Our hearts go out to the victim’s family,” Uber said in a statement. “We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident.”

The path to a fully autonomous vehicle future always was going to be filled with zigs and zags simply because of the nature of cars, vehicle ownership, laws, the economy and social habits. But the Uber-related fatality could provoke a slowdown in the whole process.

Uber self-driving cars

The technology has widely been seen as nearly ready for primetime despite earlier incidents, such as the death of a Tesla driver who was relying on the system’s Autopilot system before he got decapitated running under a semi-truck on a Florida highway.

Uber cited traffic accidents and safety in its explanation of its tests:

Real-world testing is critical to our efforts to develop self-driving technology. Self-driving cars have the potential to save millions of lives and improve quality of life for people around the world. 1.3 million people die every year in car accidents — 94% of those accidents involve human error. In the future we believe this technology will mean less congestion, more affordable and accessible transportation, and far fewer lives lost in car accidents. These goals are at the heart of Uber’s mission to make transportation as reliable as running water — everywhere and for everyone.

While Uber is still in the early days of our self-driving efforts, every day of testing leads to improvements. Right now we’re focused on getting the technology right and ensuring it’s safe for everyone on the road — pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers. We’ve informed local officials and law enforcement about our testing in Pittsburgh, and our work would not be possible without the support we’ve received from the region’s leaders.

Silicon Valley, automakers and other companies have been streaking toward producing vehicles that were said to be capable technologically of greatly reducing traffic accidents and fatalities. But this accident may cause regulators to clamp down on what has seemed like a headlong rush to perfect the technology by risking, to some extent, the safety of the public.

Testing of self-driving cars had been occurring for months involving vehicles that have a human driver ready to take over if something goes wrong. But the Times noted that states are starting to allow companies to test cars without a person in the driver’s seat and that California has said it will start allowing companies to test AVs without anyone behind the wheel beginning in April.

Arizona already allows self-driving cars to operate without a driver behind the wheel. Waymo, the automotive unit of Google, has been using Chrysler Pacifica Hybrids to pick up and drop off passengers there without a human driver behind the wheel. The state has largely taken a hands-off approach, the newspaper said, promising that it would help keep the driverless car industry free from regulation. That may be about to change.

At a time when many have lauded the technology as ready for large-scale deployment, “this is clear proof that is not yet the case,” says Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at MIT who studies automated driving. “Until we understand the testing and deployment of these systems further, we need to take our time and work through the evolution of the technology,” he says.

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