Uber’s Driverless Fatality Sparks Fallout and Finger-Pointing

The fallout from Uber’s autonomous car fatality continues today, with a number of new developments. We’re recapping them very quickly here, and adding two reaction quotes we received from Carrie Morton, deputy director of the University of Michigan’s Mcity research facility and test bed, and Shahin Farshchi, a partner at Lux Capital, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm that has a number of investments in mobility companies.

First, the recap:

—Police in Tempe, AZ, where a self-driving Uber overseen by a human safety driver killed a pedestrian crossing an intersection yesterday, seem to be placing the blame on the pedestrian. According to the Los Angeles Times, a dashcam video from the Uber apparently shows Elaine Hertzberg, the woman who was killed, moving suddenly in front of the car as she entered the roadway from a dark median.

“It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of [driving] mode,” Tempe police chief Sylvia Moir told the San Francisco Chronicle. In recounting the details of the accident, Moir repeatedly referred to the Uber driver as a “he.” In fact, the safety driver was a she named Rafaela Vasquez.

The Times reports that during a news conference yesterday, police Sgt. Roland Elcock said authorities hadn’t yet gotten a definitive picture of who was at fault, but neither the safety driver nor the victim seemed to show any signs of impairment.

—Speaking of that human safety driver: USA Today is reporting that Vasquez is a convicted felon who served three years in prison in the early 2000s for attempted robbery. This isn’t the first time Uber has been in hot water for hiring felons. USA Today says the Colorado Public Utilities Commission fined Uber’s parent company $8.9 million last November after an investigation found the ridehailing service had hired almost 60 drivers with previous felony convictions.

In typically Uberian fashion, the company blamed its troubles in Colorado on a “process area” that wasn’t consistent with the state’s ridesharing regulations. In Arizona, Uber has more than 18,000 contract drivers and 1,000 employees; roughly 300 of them worked on the self-driving tests in Tempe, according to USA Today.

—In response to Uber suspending driverless tests in four North American cities, Bloomberg reports that Toyota will also halt testing on its autonomous Chauffeur system on public roads in the U.S. The Japanese automaker told Bloomberg it was doing so because it was worried the fatal accident would have an “emotional effect” on its test drivers. Toyota had been testing its cars in Michigan and California.

Now, for the quotes:

—Carrie Morton, Mcity: “It is too early to know what the long-term impact of the Uber crash might be on consumer perceptions and adoption of driverless vehicles.  We don’t have enough information about what happened. But we know that about 20 percent of fatal crashes involve a vulnerable road user, which includes pedestrians, making pedestrian detection a critical area for research and testing. The Uber crash reinforces the importance of testing emerging technologies in a controlled environment like the Mcity test facility, as well as through simulations and on-road testing.”

—Shahin Farshchi, Lux Capital: “While it is unclear exactly what caused this tragic accident, a licensed driver must actively oversee the driverless technology that is being developed, at all times. I expect lawmakers and autonomous vehicle technology companies to work together to identify the right balance of technology augmented by human oversight that ensures a level of safety that is significantly greater than today’s human drivers, who kill over 100 people per day in the United States alone.”

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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