Investigation is still underway, but for now, Uber’s autonomous tech won’t be used on Arizona streets

Last week, we reported on an accident in Tempe, Arizona, wherein a pedestrian was struck and killed by a Volvo XC90 SUV conducting self-driving technology testing on behalf of the popular ride-hailing app Uber. In a recent development, Arizona officials have suspended all of Uber’s self-driving testing in the state.

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In a letter addressed to Dara Khosrowshahi, CEO at Uber; Governor Ducey labeled the crash as “an unquestionable failure” on the part of Uber.

Late in the evening on Sunday, March 18th, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was struck by a Volvo XC90 SUV operating under Uber’s self-driving technology. At the time, Herzberg was walking her bike across a poorly lit four-lane road outside of a designated crosswalk. She was quickly taken to hospital, but later succumbed to her injuries.

The accident is considered the first known case of a pedestrian killed by a self-driving vehicle.

Last week, Uber announced it was suspending all of its self-driving tests across the nation, including those in Tempe, San Francisco, Toronto, and Pittsburgh. “Our hearts go out to the victim’s family. We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident,” Uber said in a statement.

This week, the Governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, responded by officially suspending Uber’s autonomous vehicle testing on public roads in the state of Arizona.

In a letter addressed to Dara Khosrowshahi, CEO at Uber, Governor Ducey labeled the crash as “an unquestionable failure” on the part of Uber to consider public safety as its top priority while conducting self-driving testing.

In the letter, Ducey also reacted to the onboard footage of the accident released by police last week, calling it “disturbing and alarming,” while adding that “it raises many questions about the ability of Uber to continue testing in Arizona.”

The accident is still under investigation, and it’s not yet totally clear what role the self-driving tech played in the accident.

Onboard Video of Uber's Fatal Crash Proves Humans, Nor Machines Can be Trusted
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The accident is still under investigation, and it’s not yet totally clear what role the self-driving tech played in the accident.

Uber hopes to one day replace its human pilots with a fleet of self-driving vehicles, and previously conducted self-driving tests in Arizona with hundreds of staff members and roughly 100 self-driving vehicles.

While the Volvo XC90 comes equipped from the factory with autonomous technology that may have prevented the accident (such as automatic braking), the stock systems were disabled at the time of the incident, replaced by Uber’s own technology for testing purposes. Aptiv, which provides the camera and radar systems for Volvo’s safety tech, told Bloomberg in a statement that “We don’t want people to be confused or think it was a failure of the technology we supply for Volvo, because that’s not the case.”

Either way, the accident calls into question what can be done to prevent future incidents involving self-driving technology, with many critics pointing to the death of Joshua Brown in 2016 as yet another indication that self-driving technology is not yet ready for the public. Brown was driving his Tesla Model S in Autopilot mode when it collided with an 18-wheeler that was crossing the highway, resulting in his death.

Onboard Video of Uber's Fatal Crash Proves Humans, Nor Machines Can be Trusted
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Unfortunately, the unpredictable nature of human drivers and pedestrians predicates that testing must be done outside laboratory settings before the product is finalized.

Clearly, the tech is still very much in development, and while it promises to one day make the roads safer, the unpredictable nature of human drivers and pedestrians predicates that testing must be done outside laboratory settings before the product is finalized.

It’s highly likely that many more accidents will occur as more and more self-driving vehicles filter onto the roadways, both for testing purposes and as consumer products. Whether or not the public will weigh the potential hazards of self-driving development against the potential benefits of future faultless self-driving cars remains to be seen.

References

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