Uber driverless car kills woman on street in the US; outrage rises, backlash coming
Uber said it was suspending North American tests of its self-driving vehicles, which are currently going on in Arizona, Pittsburgh and Toronto. So-called robot cars, when fully developed by companies including Uber, Alphabet Inc and General Motors Co, are expected to drastically cut down on motor vehicle fatalities and create billion-dollar businesses
After an Uber driverless car kills woman on street in the US, the entire self-driving concept is back on the drawing table. And that may just be the beginning of the backlash. An Uber self-driving car hit and killed a woman crossing the street in Arizona, police said on Monday, marking the first fatality involving an autonomous vehicle and a potential blow to the technology expected to transform transportation. The ride services company said it was suspending North American tests of its self-driving vehicles, which are currently going on in Arizona, Pittsburgh and Toronto. So-called robot cars, when fully developed by companies including Uber, Alphabet Inc and General Motors Co, are expected to drastically cut down on motor vehicle fatalities and create billion-dollar businesses. But Monday`s accident underscored the possible challenges ahead for the promising technology as the cars confront real-world situations involving real people.
U.S. lawmakers have been debating legislation that would speed introduction of self-driving cars. "This tragic accident underscores why we need to be exceptionally cautious when testing and deploying autonomous vehicle technologies on public roads," said Democratic Senator Edward Markey, a member of the transportation committee, in a statement. Elaine Herzberg, 49, was walking her bicycle outside the crosswalk on a four-lane road in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe about 10 p.m. MST Sunday (0400 GMT Monday) when she was struck by the Uber vehicle traveling at about 40 miles per hour (65 km per hour), police said. The Volvo XC90 SUV was in autonomous mode with an operator behind the wheel. Herzberg later died from her injuries in a hospital, police said. "The pedestrian was outside of the crosswalk. As soon as she walked into the lane of traffic she was struck," Tempe Police Sergeant Ronald Elcock told reporters at a news conference. He said he did not yet know how close Herzberg was to the vehicle when she stepped into the lane.
Elcock said he believed Herzberg may have been homeless. The San Francisco Chronicle late Monday reported that Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir said that from viewing videos taken from the vehicle “it’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway." (Moir told the Chronicle, "I suspect preliminarily it appears that the Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident," but she did not rule out that charges could be filed against the operator in the Uber vehicle, the paper reported. The "Tempe Police Department does not determine fault in vehicular collisions," the department said in a statement late Monday, in reply to questions from Reuters about the chief`s comments. "Ultimately the investigation will be submitted to the Maricopa County Attorney`s Office for review and any potential charges."
Tempe authorities and federal officials are still investigating the incident. Canada`s transportation ministry in Ontario, where Uber conducts testing, also said it was reviewing the accident. Volvo, the Swedish car brand owned by China`s Geely, said the software controlling the car in the crash was not its own. Video footage will aid the ongoing investigation, and the case would be submitted to the district attorney, Elcock said.
"Our investigators have that information, and they will be using that in their investigation as well as the Maricopa County Attorney`s Office as part of their investigation," said Elcock. "They are going to attempt to try to find who was possibly at fault and how we can better be safe, whether it`s pedestrians or whether it`s the vehicle itself."
Uber and Waymo on Friday urged Congress to pass sweeping legislation to speed the introduction of self-driving cars into the United States. Some congressional Democrats have blocked the legislation over safety concerns, and Monday`s fatality could hamper passage of the bill, congressional aides said Monday. Safety advocates called for a national moratorium on all robot car testing on public roads. "Arizona has been the wild west of robot car testing with virtually no regulations in place," said Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit consumer advocacy group, in a statement. "That`s why Uber and Waymo test there. When there`s no sheriff in town, people get killed." Arizona has opened its arms to companies testing self-driving vehicles as a means to economic growth and jobs. Republican Governor Doug Ducey reached out to Uber in 2016 after California regulators cracked down on the company over its failure to obtain testing permits.
Self-driving cars being tested routinely get into fender-benders with other vehicles. Last week, a self-driving Uber crashed with another vehicle in Pittsburgh, local news reported. There were no injuries.
A year ago, Uber temporarily grounded its self-driving cars for a few days following a crash with another car in Tempe. The company has been the subject of a number of complaints about its autonomous vehicles, but the company has said the cars were being driven by a human driver at the time of the incidents.
ESSENTIAL TO UBER`S SUCCESS
Uber has said its ability to build autonomous cars is essential to its success in the rapidly changing transportation industry. The company envisions a network of autonomous cars that would be summoned through the Uber app that would supplement - and eventually replace - human-driven cars.
Uber has logged 2 million self-driving miles (3.2 million km) through December. The company has more than 100 autonomous cars testing on the roads of the greater Phoenix area, the company`s prime testing ground due to the state`s loose regulations and hospitable weather. Rain, snow and ice are particularly challenging for autonomous cars. The company also tests in Pittsburgh and Toronto.
Concerns over the safety of autonomous vehicles flared after a July 2016 fatality involving a Tesla Inc automobile with a partially autonomous system that required human supervision. Safety regulators later determined Tesla was not at fault.
Self-driving car industry faces critical test after first death
The death of a woman in Arizona struck by a self-driving car with no human control, the first fatality involving a fully autonomous vehicle is an event the nascent industry has long dreaded and comes at a sensitive time. Monday`s accident involving an Uber Technologies Inc car is shaping up as the first significant test of how policy makers and the public will respond to the new technology. The incident occurred as companies have been pushing for regulatory clearance to offer self-driving car ride services as soon as next year. On Friday, Uber and Alphabet Inc`s Waymo car unit had written U.S. senators urging them to approve sweeping self-driving car legislation "in the coming weeks." Automakers and technology companies such as Uber, General Motors Co and Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> have made substantial investments that hinge on significant revisions to existing vehicle safety regulations written under the assumption that a licensed human would always be in control of a vehicle. Auto and technology industry officials have warned that there could be accidents and deaths involving self-driving cars, but they have said countless additional lives would be saved as robotic systems programmed to obey traffic laws took over for distracted, sleepy or impaired human drivers.
Mark Rosenker, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said on Monday the public should not overreact to the Uber incident. He noted that 6,000 pedestrians and nearly 40,000 people die annually on U.S. roads in more than 6 million crashes annually.
“This is going to be a unfortunate obstacle that we are going to have to deal with to regain (the public`s) belief that these devices are safe,” Rosenker said. The incident prompted Uber to suspend all testing of self-driving cars. The immediate impact of the fatality may be to further delay or change a landmark bill pending in Congress to speed the testing of self-driving cars that was already stalled by objections from a handful of Democrats over safety concerns. Senator John Thune, a Republican who chairs the Commerce Committee, said the "tragedy underscores the need to adopt laws and policies tailored for self-driving vehicles." However, two Democratic U.S. senators on Thune`s committee, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, said the Uber incident demands a tough response.
"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," Blumenthal said in a statement.
The Trump administration has been working to dismantle regulatory roadblocks to self-driving cars, but it has also said it is focused on ensuring safety. "The goal is to develop common sense regulations that do not hamper innovation, while preserving safety," Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said on March 1. A spokesman for Chao had no additional comment Monday.
Chao is reviewing a petition that GM filed in January with NHTSA requesting an exemption to have a small number of autonomous vehicles operate in a ride-share program without steering wheels or human drivers. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters said Monday in a statement the incident demonstrated "there are enormous risks inherent to testing unproven technologies on public roads. It is critical that pedestrians and drivers are safeguarded." Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Monday the incident is a "wake up call to the entire AV industry and government to put a high priority on safety." In September, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a measure that would allow automakers to win exemptions from safety rules that require human controls. A Senate version would allow automakers, within three years, to each sell up to 80,000 self-driving vehicles annually if they could demonstrate to regulators they are as safe as current vehicles.
Concerns over the safety of autonomous vehicles flared in July 2016 when a man driving a Tesla Model S in semi-autonomous "Autopilot" mode died when his car struck a tractor-trailer.
In January 2017, federal safety regulators concluded there was no defect in the Tesla Autopilot system, and that the driver should have maintained control.