Uber Self-Driving Car Kills Pedestrian

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Posted on 1st May 2018 – Car Technology

Although driverless cars are still in their infancy and only trialled in very controlled environments, they are already the object of much controversy and very passionate feelings. Over the past few months, they have indeed been attacked - no less- in California, by people who went out of their way to damage them out of frustration and concern over safety.

Every new technology comes with teething pains, and driverless vehicles have suffered them too with occasional crashes that resulted in material damage, but, recently, an Uber autonomous car has made the headline for something much more serious which could question the whole future of the technology as it killed a woman crossing a road in Arizona, USA. It is the first time that someone dies in a collision with a self-driving car - the police have confirmed that the car was indeed in autonomous mode although there was a safety human driver in the vehicle at the time.

In response, Uber have issued a statement to confirm that they are fully cooperating with the authorities and that they have taken their self-driving cars off public roads in the Phoenix area where the accident occurred, as well as in San Francisco, Toronto and Pittsburgh where they were in operation.

This deadly crash comes at a critical point for the budding self-driving vehicle sector, which has invested, literally, billions in research and development and has the potential to make their manufacturers fabulously rich and improve the profitability of any company able to reduce the number of drivers they need. Unsurprisingly, there is a great appetite to deploy these vehicles on a larger scale and all parties involved were pushing for a commercialisation in the next few months or years. However, this accident could well put a spanner in the works as safety concerns are raised again.

One of the main issues is the lack of regulation and standards common to all new technologies as the law makers play catch up. This was precisely why certain states like Arizona and California have been so attractive to companies like Uber or Waymo – formerly Google self-driving car project. They have been welcome with open arms and were allowed to do, well, pretty much whatever they wanted.

Arizona for example has next to no restrictions about autonomous car testing. All the state requires is a standard vehicle registration and the operators don’t even have to share information with the authorities about what they are doing.

California imposes certain conditions such as that the car developers make public certain data such as descriptions of crashes, how many miles they drive annually, and how often the human safety operator takes control from the AI. It will, however, allow totally driverless cars on the roads next month, in April 2018.


There is also the issue of liability. Autonomous cars involve sophisticated hardware and software, not always manufactured by the same company so, in the case of an accident, who is responsible? It is easy to see how lawsuits could take years to resolve.

In the meanwhile, companies manufacturing self-driving vehicles await with trepidation a new piece of legislation called the Self Drive Act that would allow testing on a large scale — we are talking 100,000 vehicles per manufacturer— all over the US.

The fatal accident doesn’t help the companies’ position as it clearly shows that the technological problems are still considerable. The uproar about this accident is similar to the public thinking of air travel as dangerous. Yes, most passengers will die in a plane crash, which is why they often get a wide coverage through media, but if you look at statistics, it is the safest mean of transportation, by far.

The loss of a life because of an autonomous car is terrible, and some have highlighted that letting those vehicles loose on the roads, and therefore volunteering everybody in their vicinity as guinea pigs, is unwise. But on the other hand, the numbers show that 40,000 people in the US died in car accidents caused by humans in 2017, 6,000 of them pedestrians, that is over 16 a day. There would also be no way to record accidents that would be prevented thanks to driverless cars avoiding tired or distracted drivers. So all in all, despite this one death, are self-driving cars really less safe than one with humans behind the wheel?

Likewise, the safety driver system has been criticised as, in this case, it is clear that it didn’t work. Uber insisted that their employees are thoroughly trained to deal with this kind of situation, but a video shot from the vehicle’s dashboard which was released subsequently shows the safety driver looking down, not at the road. Although this perfectly illustrates the very type of inattention that autonomous cars will eliminate, it also shows that the safety driver system won’t be sufficient to safeguard everyone around these cars.

A few days later, The New York Times mentioned an internal report by Uber showing that the company was aware that the testing program was riddled with issues and was less reliable than that of competing companies. There is also criticism in the US about how Uber had actually started testing self-driving vehicles a couple of years without it being disclosed to the public, prompting calls for more transparency.

As a result of this accident, the Governor of Arizona has revoked Uber’s right to test autonomous vehicles in the state and Uber offered a settlement to the family of the victim, thereby protecting itself from a high-profile trial which would, no doubt, not do any good to its reputation but also risk revealing proprietary technology.

Toyota and chipmaker Nvida Corp, the latter manufacturer of self-driving technology, have suspended their own programmes while the inquiry into the accident is in progress, although this hasn’t prevented the price of Nvida’s share to fall by 9.5%.

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