Arizona Pedestrian Is Killed By Uber Self-Driving Car; Company Puts Testing On Hold
By Rex Crum, THE MERCURY NEWS
March 19, 2018
In what is believed to be the first death of a pedestrian hit by a self-driving car on a public street, a woman in Tempe, Arizona, was killed in an accident involving an Uber autonomous vehicle Sunday night.
Uber confirmed the accident occurred, and that there was a person in a front passenger seat acting as operator of the vehicle. Uber said that as a result of the accident, it is putting a hold on all tests involving its self-driving cars. In addition to Arizona, the ride-sharing company has been running tests of self-driving cars in San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Toronto.
Uber said it has more than 200 self-driving cars as part of its autonomous vehicle testing program.
“Our hearts go out to the victim’s family. We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident,” said an Uber spokesperson, in a statement provided to this news organization.
Elaine Herzberg, 49, was struck as she walked from west to east outside of a crosswalk Sunday night, according to Tempe police. Herzberg was then transported to a local hospital, where she died. Police say the incident was still part of an active investigation, and that Uber is assisting with the matter.
John Simpson, privacy and technology project director at the nonpartisan group Consumer Watchdog, which has been critical of rapid growth of the self-driving car technology industry, said the fatality “underscores the difficulty robot cars have in interacting with pedestrians and cyclists.” He called for an immediate national moratorium on the testing of self-driving cars on public roads until an independent analysis of what caused the accident can be completed.
“Arizona has been the wild west of robot car testing, with virtually no regulations in place,” Simpson said. “That’s why Uber and (Google-owned) Waymo test there. When there’s no sheriff in town, people get killed.”
The incident comes at a particularly embarrassing time for Uber; California is set to allow self-driving cars without any human support behind the wheel for testing and transporting people on public roads beginning April. 2.
When reached for comment on the Uber accident, the California Department of Motor Vehicles didn’t say if it would postpone that April 2 date.
“The California DMV takes the safe operation of our autonomous vehicle permit holders very seriously,” the agency said in a statement. “The California DMV has many requirements in place for testing permit holders and requires collision reports and annual disengagement reports. We are aware of the Uber crash in Arizona, but we have not been briefed on the details of the crash at this time. We plan to follow up with Uber to get more information.”
Tim Bajarin, president of tech consultancy Creative Strategies, said Sunday’s fatality shows that the technology behind autonomous vehicles is “by no means ready for prime time,” despite all the attention and investment being given to it.
“This underlines that this technology is still years away from being safe enough to use in real-world settings,” he said. “We need a lot more in the way of technological breakthroughs before autonomous vehicles ever hit the road in a broad way.”
Rex Crum is the senior web editor for the business section for The Mercury News and Bay Area News Group. He also writes about business and technology for the publications’ print and web editions, and has covered business and technology for nearly two decades. A native of Seattle, he remains a diehard Seahawks and Mariners fan and is imparting his fandom to his Oakland-native wife and two young daughters.