Uber Suspends Driverless Testing After Fatal Accident in Arizona

The inevitable has happened. An autonomous Uber car hit a pedestrian in Tempe, AZ, and caused her death. The ride-hailing giant has suspended testing on driverless cars in Arizona, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Toronto, according to the New York Times. This is the first known death of a pedestrian caused by a self-driving car on a public road.

Reports indicate the Uber car was in autonomous mode with a human safety driver present behind the wheel when the victim, identified by Tempe police as 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, was struck while crossing the street outside of a crosswalk around 10 p.m. Sunday.

“Our hearts go out to the victim’s family,” said Sarah Abboud, Uber spokesperson, in a statement. “We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident.”

CBS 5, a Phoenix television station, reported that the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the incident. Arizona is a popular location for testing autonomous vehicles—with Waymo also trying out self-driving taxis there—due in part to the state’s loose regulations. It’s legal in Arizona for the cars to operate without human drivers, something only a handful of states currently allow.

The death of a pedestrian at the hands of a self-driving car will no doubt cause some backlash, but even with a fatality now on the record books, supporters will argue that autonomous vehicles are not statistically more dangerous than human drivers. More than 90 percent of U.S. traffic accidents are thought to involve human error; eliminating driver errors could save as many Americans as were lost in the Vietnam War in two years (though the safety comparison with autonomous vehicles isn’t so simple, according to this piece in The Conversation). Waymo, for its part, filed 13 accident reports in 2016, but its self-driving cars also drove 635,868 miles in autonomous mode during that period, representing about one accident for every 50,000 miles.

Nonetheless, at least one prominent researcher is calling for the breakneck race to get self-driving cars on the road to come to a halt. Raj Rajkumar, head of Carnegie Mellon University’s self-driving laboratory—one of the places where autonomous technologies were pioneered—told Axios that driverless technology is not yet where it needs to be.

“This isn’t like a bug with your phone,” Rajkumar said. “People can get killed. Companies need to take a deep breath. The technology is not there yet. We need to keep people in the loop.”

As details emerge from Arizona, there is sure to be more debate. We’ve reached out to some mobility industry experts in our Rolodex for their take on the situation, and we’ll update this story if we hear back.

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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