Self-Driving Uber Vehicle Fatally Strikes Pedestrian, Company Halts Autonomous Testing

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

In the evening hours of March 18th, a pedestrian was fatally struck by a self-driving vehicle in Tempe, Arizona. While we all knew this was an inevitability, many expected the first casualty of progress to be later in the autonomous development timeline. The vehicle in question was owned by Uber Technologies and the company has admitted it was operating autonomously at the time of the incident.

The company has since halted all testing in the Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Toronto, and greater Phoenix areas.

If you’re wondering what happened, so is Uber. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has opened an investigation into the accident and is sending a team to Tempe. Uber says it is cooperating with authorities.

According to ABC 15 Arizona, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg attempted to cross a multilane road outside of the crosswalk around 10 p.m. Sunday night and was struck by a self-driving Volvo XC90 near the intersection of Mill Avenue and Curry Road. While there was someone behind the wheel of the SUV (Uber stipulates its test vehicles have a safety driver), Tempe Police confirmed the vehicle was operating autonomously at the time of the crash.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi tweeted on the matter Monday afternoon. “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,” he said.

While Uber has experienced incidents in the past, including a highly publicized wreck last year, this is the first time one of its autonomous vehicles has been involved in a fatal accident. It’s also the first time a pedestrian has been killed by a self-driving vehicle.

The NTSB takes a special interest in autonomous crashes. Last year, it partially faulted Tesla’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system for a fatal crash in Florida in 2016. Since then, it has assumed a cautionary tone on the technology — enthusiastic about the possibility of saving lives, but clearly concerned the sector is not being regulated or developed safely enough. It’s in direct opposition to the Department of Transportation, which has opened the door for automakers to test on public roads with only a modicum of regulatory activity.

Which brings us to the million-dollar question: how will this tragic situation affect the development of autonomous technology? Companies have flocked to Arizona to test their self-driving vehicles. General Motors and Waymo both test their autonomous fleets there, the latter without safety drivers, and this could create additional pressure from local government to buckle down on safety. Up to this point, the state said it wouldn’t hinder companies with new regulations.

Other states haven’t been so forgiving. After a self-driving Uber vehicle ran a red light in San Francisco, California faulted the company for operating in the state without seeking regulatory approvals. A bureaucratic row ensued over the right to test its vehicles in the state and the DMV attempted to halt the firm from testing. Uber continued to do so without a permit, but was eventually granted one on March 8th of 2017.

Questions of accountability regarding self-driving cars are likely to crop up as a result of the fatal accident in Tempe. While the safety driver theoretically should have been able to intervene, Uber’s technology is supposed to mitigate situations like this without human involvement. There is also a chance the crash couldn’t have been avoided at all. Images of the car show moderate damage to the vehicle’s front end, indicating there may not have been enough distance for it to stop after Herzberg entered the road. Of course, the alternative is that the sensors did not see the woman at all, and the vehicle continued along its course as if no obstacle was present.

The NTSB claims it will provide details once the investigation begins in earnest. Expect updates as the story progresses.

[Image: Uber Technologies]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Stingray65 Stingray65 on Mar 20, 2018

    Scenarios that will slow down self-driving: 1. Someone wanting to commit suicide by jumping in front of a self-driving car owned by a deep pocketed tech or auto company (payday for the kids left behind). 2. Homeless person wanting a nice payday and free hospital room and board jumping in front of a self-driving car owned by a deep pocketed tech or auto company. 3. Accidents due to unpredictable kids on bikes, trikes, scooters, chasing balls, etc. 4. Accidents due to unpredictable adults on motorcycles - lane splitting, driving way over the speed limit, etc. You can program for the predictable, but it is very difficult to program for the unpredictable and/or irrational behavior of humans.

  • Thx_zetec Thx_zetec on Mar 20, 2018

    This reminds me of case when there are high profile police-shootings. Immediately after there is not much information but many are sure it is police (or shooter's) fault. We have to be patient; that car is loaded with sensors and there will be plenty of data to figure out what happened. For cases like this we need same model as commercial aviation NTSB. Don't crucify the companies or drivers etc, but collect all data and study is carefully. That is how flying became so safe.

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