An Uber self-driving car struck a pedestrian walking her bicycle across a street in Tempe, Ariz., on March 18. The accident marks what is believed to be the first human fatality involving an autonomous car. At the time of the accident, the Volvo XC90 SUV was traveling in autonomous mode, which means it was driving itself. However, a test driver was also sitting behind the wheel when the pedestrian was hit. According to the police investigation, the car is believed to have been going around 40 mph.
Ramifications at Uber and in Arizona
Uber is testing autonomous cars in the Phoenix metro area as well as in Pittsburgh, Toronto, and other locales. After the news came out, Uber halted its testing of autonomous vehicles. The ride-share company had previously pulled its self-driving cars from the road in 2017 after one of its autonomous cars landed on its side in Tempe.
Arizona is a highly desirable location for the testing of autonomous cars since it gets little inclement weather or precipitation. Waymo is launching a public self-driving car service in Phoenix later this year. In response to the accident, Waymo CEO stated, “we’re very confident that our car would have handled that situation.” Waymo and Uber have been involved in a contentious intellectual property lawsuit, which was only settled in February.
Affecting Other Autonomous Technology Developers
The accident has at least temporarily tapped the brakes on autonomous cars for companies such as General Motors, Ford, Tesla, Toyota, Nissan, Volvo, Waymo, and Uber. After the accident, the New York Times obtained internal Uber documents that revealed Uber’s self-driving cars were having difficulty navigating construction zones and driving next to tall vehicles such as tractor trailers. The documents also revealed that the company was struggling to meet its target of 13 miles without a human intervention — a major shortfall compared to Waymo’s 1,200 miles per human intervention. Uber’s test drivers were also being called upon to operate solo instead of working in pairs as before.
A video taken from the dashboard of the car in the accident shows the human safety driver looking down and away from the road. The safety drivers are instructed to hover their hands above the steering wheel so that they can immediately take control. However, it was not apparent from the video if the safety driver followed this protocol.
Self-Driving Car Testing in Arizona
There are few federal laws pertaining to autonomous cars. This leaves much of the regulation to individual states. In contrast to California, Arizona has taken a laissez-faire approach to regulating autonomous cars. For example, the state does not require companies to disclose performance metrics for their vehicles. Uber began testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh in September 2016. However, the Phoenix area, with its favorable weather and regulatory climate, soon became the primary testing ground for Uber.
There were initially two groups of drivers in the Phoenix area. One smaller group placed the cars in stressful situations that would involve forced collisions without human intervention. The other larger group picked up customers in the autonomous vehicles. This group focused on avoiding ride aspects that might create a negative perception. These two groups were merged by Uber around October 2017 with the objective of offering their autonomous ride service to customers as soon as possible. It was also around this time that the number of employees in each car was reduced from two to one, a move Waymo had carried out in late 2015 in certain, but not all, cases. Waymo is now testing autonomous vehicles in the suburbs of Phoenix with no safety drivers on board at all.
Concerns From Within Uber
Some Uber employees indicated concerns about safety after the move to solo drivers. They believed that it would be more difficult for the solo drivers to stay awake for the hours-long drive. An Uber spokesman said the start of the solo driving changes was delayed due to these concerns and more training was offered.
Company documents show that Uber had been planning to seek government approval to commence an autonomous car service in Arizona. Uber had said the safety of the vehicles would have to exceed human drivers before it would commercialize the technology. Company leaders added that the service would halt for bad weather and traffic. It is not clear how the accident will affect these plans.