Self-driving Uber in Arizona kills pedestrian

UPDATED: 3/19/18 6:54 pm ET — adds details

SAN FRANCISCO — An Uber vehicle operating in autonomous mode in Tempe, Ariz., struck and killed a pedestrian crossing the street Sunday night.

The Tempe Police Department said the vehicle, which was being supervised by Rafael Vasquez, 34, was traveling 40 mph with no signs of slowing down, hitting 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg as she was walking her bike across the street outside the crosswalk. She was transported to the hospital and later died from the injuries. Sgt. Ronald Elcock, a spokesman for the Tempe police, said neither the driver nor the victim appeared impaired in the preliminary investigation.

Uber has suspended pilots in all cities following the deadly crash, and CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in a tweet that the company was cooperating with police in its investigation.

The National Transportation Safety Board also said in a tweet that it is also investigating the crash

The ride-hailing company began testing its autonomous vehicles in Arizona in February 2017. One of its vehicles in autonomous mode crashed in March 2017, shortly after the pilot began, and the company briefly suspended testing. Uber vehicles returned to the road after an investigation found it was not at fault.

An Uber vehicle in autonomous mode in the company’s pilot program in Pittsburgh was involved in another collision in February, though investigators have not determined who was at fault, according to reports.

Local response

On March 1, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order tightening regulations for companies to test autonomous vehicles without a human supervisor. As part of the executive order, companies could be charged if a test vehicle kills someone, a spokesman for Ducey told local media. 

Elcock said the County Attorney’s Office will be responsible for determining charges once police conclude their investigation. He added there is video evidence of the crash that will not be released at this time.

In a statement tweeted out Monday, Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell said companies testing in the area have been following traffic laws and called Uber’s vehicle suspension “responsible.” 

First fatality of its kind

The crash is the first reported death caused by a vehicle intended to be fully self-driving. In May 2016, Joshua Brown was killed when his Tesla Model S crashed into a semi-truck while operating in Autopilot. The system is semiautonomous, and an NTSB investigation found that Brown was using the technology outside of its capabilities.

Though Herzberg was not in the crosswalk at the time of the crash, self-driving safety advocates say her position should not put her at fault.

“‘Crossing outside of the sidewalk’ was never a valid excuse for traffic deaths, and it provides no cover for autonomous mobility companies,” Janette Sadik-Khan, former New York City Department of Transportation commissioner and a transportation consultant, tweeted.

The crash will likely affect all manufacturers developing autonomous vehicle technology, and the results of the investigation could influence consumer acceptance, experts say.

“This has the potential to severely impact public perceptions of autonomous technology, and should be handled with utmost prudence by regulators, authorities, and the industry alike,” said Akshay Anand, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book, in an email.

Further fatalities or an inadequate response to Sunday’s accident could deal a crushing blow to years of autonomous vehicle development.

“If we have more tragedies like the one we saw in Arizona, the public is going to recoil from this technology and are not going to get in these cars, and any safety benefits that could be realized will be lost,” said Peter Kurdock, director of regulatory affairs at the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “Certain segments of the industry that have placed rush to market over making sure these things are safe.”

The crash also comes as Congress considers a bill that would allow manufacturers to deploy tens of thousands of autonomous vehicles without meeting certain federal safety requirements. The legislation is currently pending as five Democratic senators have placed a hold on it.

“This tragic accident underscores why we need to be exceptionally cautious when testing and deploying autonomous vehicle technologies on public roads,” said U.S. Sen. Edward Markey D-Mass., one of the legislators blocking the bill, in a statement. “If these technologies are to reap their purported safety, efficiency, and environmental benefits, we must have robust safety, cybersecurity, and privacy rules in place before these vehicles are traveling our roadways to prevent such tragedies from occurring.”

Volvo Cars, which supplies XC90 crossovers to Uber and has been working with the company on integrating the technology into the vehicles, said in a statement that it was notified of the crash.

“We are aware of this incident and our thoughts are with the family of the woman involved,” said a Volvo spokesman. “We are aware that Uber is cooperating with local authorities in their investigation.”

Legislative action

On Friday, a large coalition of public interest groups urged Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao to toughen what it called “weak and unenforceable” voluntary guidelines for autonomous vehicle developers.

Revised guidelines issued by the Trump administration last summer eliminated requirements for automakers to seek regulatory approval before launching autonomous technology on roadways and urged states to leave motor vehicle performance requirements to the federal government. Automakers and technology companies do not need to include “unnecessary” design elements, such as steering wheels, from safety self-assessments filed with NHTSA, the nation’s motor vehicle safety regulator and a DOT sub-agency said.

The self-assessment letters are a way for companies to publicly disclose information about autonomous technology undergoing testing.

At the time, critics faulted the proposed guidelines for not requiring more information from automakers about autonomous vehicle systems and requiring performance standards for the software and sensors controlling the vehicles.

“The Department and … NHTSA have chosen to be detached spectators instead of engaged safety regulators during one of the most crucial and critical times in the history of automobiles,” more than two dozen groups and individuals said in a letter to Chao.

“We strongly believe that DOT has a legal responsibility to evaluate and regulate technologies that are ‘safety winners or losers’ before they even enter the marketplace. This is the most effective and assured approach to prevent unproven and potentially dangerous technologies from being sold to the public and allowed on public streets and highways across the country,” the coalition said.

The Takata airbag recall crisis, General Motor’s faulty ignition switch, Toyota’s acceleration scandals and Volkswagen diesel emissions cheating demonstrate why the industry shouldn’t have a free hand with autonomous vehicle deployment, the safety advocates said.

Eric Kulisch contributed to this report.

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