Published 1:23 p.m. ET March 19, 2018 |
Uber has suspended all testing of self-driving cars following what is believed to be the first fatal pedestrian accident involving an autonomous vehicle. Consumer advocates seized on the incident to urge tougher regulations.
Forty-nine-year-old Elaine Herzberg was hit by a 2017 Volvo XC90 SUV that was being operated autonomously by Uber in Tempe, Ariz., around 10 p.m. Sunday, according to police in the Phoenix suburb. Tempe police said the vehicle was in self-drive mode with an operator behind the wheel when Herzberg, who walking a bicycle outside of a crosswalk, was hit.
Sgt. Ronald Elcock said in an email that the woman died after being taken to a local hospital.
Uber did not respond to email messages sent Monday seeking comment. But Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi tweeted Monday: “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.”
“Our hearts go out to the victim’s family,” the company added in a tweet from its main account. “We’re fully cooperating with @TempePolice and local authorities as they investigate this incident.”
Police said Uber is cooperating in the investigation. The National Transportation Safety Board said in a tweet Monday it is sending a team to Tempe to investigate the crash. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it dispatched its Special Crash Investigation team.
Uber has been testing the self-driving vehicles in Tempe and Phoenix for months.
The traffic fatality provided ammunition for robotic-car skeptics who have called for automakers and technology companies to slow their rush to develop the vehicles for the mass market.
“This tragic accident underscores why we need to be exceptionally cautious when testing and deploying autonomous vehicle technologies on public roads,” Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said in a statement. “If these technologies are to reap their purported safety, efficiency and environmental benefits, we must have robust safety, cybersecurity and privacy rules in place before these vehicles are traveling our roadways to prevent such tragedies from occurring.”
John Simpson, privacy project director at the Santa Monica, California-based Consumer Watchdog group, took it a step further by calling for “a national moratorium on all robot-car testing.” He blamed the crash on lax self-driving testing rules in Arizona that he said have enticed automakers and technology companies to operate their autonomous cars there.
“Arizona has been the Wild West of robot-car testing with virtually no regulations in place,” he said. “That’s why Uber and Waymo test there. When there’s no sheriff in town, people get killed.”
The crash is the latest in a series of self-driving accidents that have raised questions about the safety of the technology.
In 2017 in Tempe, a self-driving Volvo operated by Uber crashed into a car that failed to yield. That crash also prompted Uber to temporarily suspend its self-driving testing, although the Uber vehicle was found to not be responsible for the accident and there were no injuries.
In 2016, a 2015 Tesla Model S that was operating with its automated driving system activated crashed into a semi-trailer rig turning left in front of it, killing the driver in what was believed to be the first U.S. death in a vehicle driving in semi-autonomous mode.
Glenn Stevens, executive director of Detroit Regional Chamber’s MICHauto, which promotes the importance of retaining and growing the automotive industry in Michigan, said it is important for automakers to continue testing self-driving cars, despite the spate of recent crashes. He noted that thousands of U.S. residents die annually in car crashes.
“It is tragic a life was lost in Tempe today,” he said in an email. “Global research and testing is enabling us to solve problems and provide opportunities for people to experience mobility in a less congested, greener and safer world.”
Sam Abuelsamid, senior research analyst at Navigant Research, said it’s unlikely automakers will pump the brakes on self-driving cars.
“I don’t think it’s going to cause anybody to slow down on their development efforts,” he said. “Where you might some impact is they could slow some of the deployment so they can make sure they are covering the safety angles a little bit better.”
Abuelsamid said automakers face an uphill battle to prevent accidents involving pedestrians.
“Humans are going to do bad things,” he said, although he noted that little is known so far about Sunday’s crash. “In some cases, they step out in front of the vehicles or they try to taunt them.”
Abuelsamid said self-driving cars are at disadvantage when they interact with pedestrians because the cars cannot use nonverbal signals like waving a hand to let people know it is OK to cross. “There needs to be some way for the vehicle to signal to pedestrians what its intent is,” he said.
Researchers at Ford Motor Co. sought to address that problem by dressing an engineer in a suit matching the interior of a car to make it look like the vehicle was being operated autonomously in a test of pedestrian interactions with self-driving automobiles. That study was conducted in the Washington metro area last fall in conjunction with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.
The research teams developed a system involving a light at the top of the vehicle’s windshield that moved from side-to-side to indicate a self-driving car was about to yield. The lights stayed solid white to indicate the car was in drive mode. And before the self-driving vehicle started, the lights rapidly blinked to signal pedestrians it was about to move.
A poll conducted by AlixPartners in September 2017 showed 84 percent of respondents said they are concerned about vehicle-software malfunctions in self-driving cars, and close to 80 percent said they were worried about potential hardware malfunctions.
Akshay Anand, analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said the Uber crash could prompt more misgivings about safety.
“There will no doubt be an exhaustive investigation of the tragic incident involving an Uber self-driving vehicle and a pedestrian,” Anand said. “What is clear is that this has the potential to severely impact public perceptions of autonomous technology, and should be handled with utmost prudence by regulators, authorities and the industry alike.”