The first fatality in the United States involving a collision between a pedestrian and a self-driving car has occurred in Tempe, Arizona. At about 10:00 pm on March 18, a 49 year old woman stepped off a sidewalk to cross the street. She was struck and killed by an oncoming Uber self-driving car operating in autonomous mode with a human driver on board. Police are investigating the circumstances that led to the fatality.
No official report has been released at this time and news reports vary as to whether the pedestrian was or was not in a crosswalk at the time she was struck by the Uber vehicle. TechCrunch says “a woman crossed in its path outside of a crosswalk, at which point she was struck by the vehicle.” Engadget reports, “A woman walking on a crosswalk was struck by the car and she later died in the hospital due to the injuries she sustained.” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi immediately issued a tweet offering sympathy and condolences to the victim’s family.
Some incredibly sad news out of Arizona. We’re thinking of the victim’s family as we work with local law enforcement to understand what happened. https://t.co/cwTCVJjEuz
— dara khosrowshahi (@dkhos) March 19, 2018
This is a tragedy for all involved and will no doubt result in a re-examination of the rules for testing self-driving cars, just as the death of Joshua Brown on a Florida highway in 2016 while driving a Tesla Model S led to a divorce between Tesla and Mobileye and a rethinking of Tesla’s Autopilot system. A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board told CNBC it is investigating the accident. The Arizona governor’s office said it is talking with law enforcement. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is also investigating the incident.
Uber has put all its autonomous vehicle testing programs on hold. It has been conducting tests in Pittsburgh, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Toronto. There is no word on whether that pause applies to Uber’s self-driving tractor trailer program. Waymo, an arch rival of Uber, has moved beyond testing and is actually allowing people in the Phoenix area to arrange for rides within a defined area in a specially modified autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivan with no human driver aboard.
No amount of condolences can make up for the loss of life, but CNBC reports the Governors Highway Safety Association estimates there were about 5,984 pedestrian fatalities in 2017. The issue now will be whether self-driving cars could prevent more pedestrian fatalities than they cause. No doubt, this incident will send shockwaves through the industry. Everyone assumes that autonomous cars are coming. Elon Musk insists they will be as common as self-service elevators within a few years and just as safe.
Will one tragic accident derail the development of autonomous driving systems? Will there be a public backlash against self-driving cars? It’s too soon to know the answers to those questions, but expect a lively debate on this subject in the weeks and months to come. Lots of companies are testing autonomous technology. At least 20 have obtained licenses to test their cars in California from that state’s registry of motor vehicles.
Manufacturers and tech companies believe ride-hailing services using self-driving cars will be a major source of revenue, but liability issues could play a big role in whether they will be profitable. Uber faces significant financial exposure from this fatality. The human driver may also be subject to criminal charges if he is found to have been negligent in monitoring the operation of the car. The accident will likely lead Toyota to rethink its recently announced self-driving partnership with Uber as well.
From one perspective, the wonder is not that a person has been killed by a collision with an autonomous car. The wonder is that no one has been killed before this. Looking back on the history of technological change, this unfortunate situation will probably dominate the headlines briefly, but the push for self-driving cars will continue unabated.