Uber Halts Self-Driving Operations After Car Kills Arizona Pedestrian

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Uber Halts Self-Driving Operations After Car Kills Arizona Pedestrian


March 19, 2018


An Uber vehicle operating in autonomous mode struck and killed a pedestrian on a Tempe, Ariz., street late Sunday night. Uber suspended autonomous vehicle operations in all four cities, including San Francisco, where it tests the robot cars.

The car had a human back-up driver behind the wheel when it hit a woman who was wheeling a bicycle across the street outside of a crosswalk at 10 p.m., according to Tempe police. “Uber is assisting and this is still an active investigation,” said police detective Liliana Duran.

The victim, who died of her injuries at a local hospital, was Elaine Herzberg, 49, the Tempe police said. Local media showed images of her mangled bike on the ground next to the Uber car with its distinctive sensors bristling from the roof.

Dozens of companies from large carmakers to tech startups are racing to develop self-driving cars, which most industry experts agree will transform the world’s technology landscape over the next few years. A primary motivation is that self-driving vehicles supposedly are not prone to the same kind of errors as human drivers since they don’t text, drink or get distracted.

New Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who may face one of his biggest challenges from this incident, tweeted: “Some incredibly sad news out of Arizona. We’re thinking of the victim’s family as we work with local law enforcement to understand what happened.”

The National Transportation Safety Board tweeted that it’s sending a team to investigate the crash, the first pedestrian fatality attributed to autonomous cars. While the fatal crash of a Tesla in autopilot mode two years ago drew widespread attention, the driver in that case was faulted for relying on the technology, which was not intended to replace human drivers.

Many consumer advocates fear that the nation is rushing to legalize the cars without enough due diligence.

“There should be a national moratorium on all robot car testing on public roads until the complete details of this tragedy are made public and are analyzed by outside experts so we understand what went so terribly wrong,” said John Simpson, privacy and technology project director at Consumer Watchdog. “Arizona has been the wild west of robot car testing with virtually no regulations in place. That’s why Uber and Waymo test there. When there’s no sheriff in town, people get killed.”

California, which is a hotbed for autonomous vehicle testing with 50 companies piloting several hundred cars, currently requires the vehicles to have back-up drivers who are supposed to take control to avoid accidents like the one in Tempe. The state is days away from allowing robot cars with no human drivers, starting April 2.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles, which regulates autonomous cars, said it plans to follow up with Uber to get more information on the fatal crash. “The California DMV has many requirements in place for testing permit holders and requires collision reports and annual disengagement reports,” said spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez.

Meanwhile, federal lawmakers have also been moving forward on regulations to allow self-driving cars. “Congress is on the brink of opening the floodgates for (autonomous vehicles) to be sold in vast numbers, without having to meet a single safety standard specific to this new technology, while hamstringing the states from protecting their own citizens, and failing to block AV manufacturers from using forced arbitration to evade legal liability and keep defects and deaths secret,” said Rosemary Shahan, executive director of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety.

Akshay Anand, executive analyst for Kelley Blue Book, an online car shopping research site, said the accident could have a big impact on public perception.

“A lot of people still have trepidation about autonomous vehicles, and this could reinforce those wary perceptions,” he said.

Uber said it has suspended autonomous operations in all its test locales. It has operated ride-hailing autonomous vehicles with backup drivers for paying customers in Arizona and Pittsburgh. Uber was also testing autonomous cars in San Francisco, where it just started giving free commute rides to employees in its self-driving division. It also has done some testing in Toronto.

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

Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected]

Consumer Watchdog
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