This is rather sad technology news, the type this industry isn’t used to. The self-driving car industry has experienced its first pedestrian death when an autonomous Uber car struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona.
There are many different questions to be asked. Were we tempting fate by thinking this could even be an option? Yet human-driven cars sadly experience traffic deaths all the time. Was this the fault of the Uber car technology? Or was this just a quirk of fate? How did this happen?
The New Industry
Autonomous cars are suddenly a big industry. Google, Apple, Uber, and others are all testing vehicles and their technology, trying to be the first to sell to the public.
Officials in Arizona invited these companies to their state to use the state roads to test the self-driven cars. Tempe seemed to be an ideal location because of its dry weather as well as the wide roads.
In return Arizona went easy on these companies with regards to regulations, realizing they had to do something to lure the companies out of California. They decided the state would be a regulation-free zone.
“We needed our message to Uber, Lyft, and other entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley to be that Arizona was open to new ideas,” said Arizona Governor Doug Ducey last year.
Ducey issued an executive order allowing the testing of autonomous vehicles with safety drivers at the wheel in case of an emergency. This month he had decided to allow cars without safety drivers to test the cars, realizing that a “business-friendly and low regulatory environment” had helped the economy.
The tech companies and automakers testing these cars believe their cars will be safer than human-driven cars because distracted humans won’t factor in.
On Sunday night a self-driven Uber Volvo XC90 sport utility vehicle, that had a safety driver behind the wheel as well, was on the road in Tempe. There were no passengers in the vehicle when it hit 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg.
A Temple police spokesman, Sgt. Ronald Elcock, said in a news conference that the preliminary investigation showed the Uber car was driving around 40 miles per hour at the time of the accident.
Herzberg had been walking with her bicycle. It didn’t appear that the car even slowed down before it made contact. The weather was clear and dry, and the safety driver didn’t seem to be impaired.
“Our hearts go out to the victim’s family,” said Sarah Abboud, an Uber spokeswoman, in a statement. “We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident.”
Uber has now acted to suspend the testing, a move that Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell calls a “responsible step,” though he hopes people don’t draw conclusions on autonomous driving prematurely.
The National Transportation Safety Board is sending a team of investigators to Tempe to take a look at “the vehicle’s interaction with the environment, other vehicles, and vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and bicyclists.”
Where Do We Go from Here?
So where does this leave us with regards to the autonomous car industry?
Lawmakers are working on a Senate bill that, if passed, would remove the self-driven car makers from existing safety standards and prevent states from creating their own laws with regards to vehicle safety. Similar legislation has passed in the House already.
“This tragic incident makes clear that autonomous vehicle technology has a long way to go before it is truly safe for the passengers, pedestrians, and drivers who share America’s roads,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal.
When we go back to those questions we asked in the beginning of this article, we still have no answers and may perhaps even have more questions. Sen. Blumenthal is right that this accident proves we still have a long way to go before trusting these cars out on the road if they can’t even be trusted when they have the benefit of both technology and a safety driver.