Deadly Uber Crash Raises Serious Questions About Autonomous Cars and Their Operators [News]

Uber suspends autonomous testing after fatal accident
An Uber self-driving vehicle was involved in a fatal collision with a cyclist late Sunday evening. [Photo: ABC15 Arizona, via screenshot]

Last weekend, an Uber autonomous vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. Since then, the story has taken some strange turns.

Picture the scene: You’re out driving late at night. The roads are dry and clear, with nary a person or motorist in sight. Your phone dings with a text message, and you look down for one second and…well, we all know how the story ends. Horror of horrors, you’re involved in an accident with another car or, worse, a pedestrian, and the person you hit ultimately succumbs to their injuries.

That’s more or less what happened this past Sunday on the streets of Tempe, Arizona, where an Uber vehicle struck and killed a 49-year-old woman walking with her bicycle across the road. But here’s the twist: you’re not driving. This particular incident involved one of Uber’s autonomous testing cars, and the car didn’t stop in time to avoid striking the pedestrian. She was rushed to the hospital, but ultimately died from her wounds.

There was a “secondary operator” in the car at the time the accident happened, but the operator was not in control of the car at the time. According to ABC15, a local station in the Phoenix area, the incident took place around 10 P.M. Sunday night. There didn’t seem to be any other motorists or pedestrians in the area at the time. Uber agreed to cooperate fully with authorities, and Tempe Police are still investigating what happened.

New video changes the narrative

Original media accounts of the story indicated the cyclist may have been at fault for the accident. She wore dark clothing and crossed the street a few hundred feet away from the crosswalk. In other words, she was jaywalking. In that case, it was nearly impossible for the car, let alone its operator, to spot the woman before the car hit her. These reports seemed to exonerate the driver, as they claimed the driver was not in control and the pedestrian just walked in front of the car.

However, the video below, released by Tempe Police, shows another story. In the 22-second video, the operator’s shown looking down, away from the road, for long periods of time. The operator looks up momentarily, then takes their eyes away from the road again. Right before the impact, the operator looks surprised and reacts at the last moment to try and avoid a collision. As a warning, some viewers may find the video below – particularly the exterior footage – disturbing.

[Video: Tempe Police – Twitter]

Who may be at fault in a driverless crash?

This incident raises a lot of important questions. For instance, if the operator isn’t actively driving the car, can they still be at fault? Could the car have seen the pedestrian from farther away, and didn’t react in time? Then, there’s the matter of the pedestrian crossing the road in the dead of night outside of a crosswalk, which the cars cameras and sensors are set up to detect. Because it was late at night, the test car – a Volvo XC90 – was likely relying heavily on lidar, which emit laser beams that bounce off surrounding objects.

While the semantics of this case play out and police attempt to determine fault, the incident calls into question the maturity of these self-driving systems. Are they close to being ready for consumer use? While this investigation is going on, Uber has halted autonomous testing nationwide. Other companies, including Toyota and Nutonomy, have also grounded their autonomous fleets, at least temporarily.

What do you think of this situation? Let us know in the comments below!

Uber suspends autonomous testing
What could this incident mean for autonomous testing in the near future? [Photo: Uber]