On March 18, a self-driving Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian near Tempe, Arizona. It is the first fatality resulting from a self-driving car accident. Footage of a dashboard camera showed that the car neither slowed nor swerved to avoid the pedestrian, a woman walking a bicycle across the road in mid-block.
Uber has been testing autonomous vehicles in Arizona, which had welcomed the company after it had a dispute with California state authorities over permits. The vehicles have drivers in them who are supposed to take over driving functions if necessary.
The vehicle in question had a driver, who did not move to take over the wheel. An investigation into the causes of the accident is pending.
Tests Suspended in Wake of Accident
What does this mean for the future of the self-driving car? Uber is one of several automotive companies testing autonomous cars, and Arizona is one of several states where tests were underway prior to the accident. Uber was also conducting autonomous car driving in Pittsburgh, Toronto, and San Francisco.
In the short term, technology news is clear. Tests have been suspended pending an inquiry into the causes of the accident. Uber suspended all of its autonomous car testing, as did Toyota. Nvidia, a company that makes autonomous car technology, also suspended its development.
Arizona’s governor suspended all self-driving car operations in the state.
The accident occurred near Tempe, Arizona.
Long term, the business strategy considerations are less clear. Uber apparently moved to Arizona seeking less regulation than it had encountered in California. According to NBC News, however, California is going to require that Uber address the issues raised by the Arizona crash before it can receive a permit to operate in California.
The state’s suspension of Uber’s testing noted that the tests failed to comply with public safety. Nvidia’s statement noted that the results of the crash investigation need to be known before autonomous car technology can move forward.
Ironically, NPR reports that California had recently removed the requirement that self-driving cars always contain a person in case there is a need to take over driving functions.
At this point, it appears likely that the future will hold more stringent regulations about back-up driving in autonomous vehicles. It may also hold further technology development for self-driving cars, depending on what the crash investigation finds as the cause of the accident.
Self-driving vehicles have been promoted as a way to take human error out of the driving equation, with an expectation that it will lead to a decline in accidents and safer roads.
While it is true that well-operated autonomous cars may be able to follow traffic regulations, laws, and traffic patterns in a way that may be safer than inattentive or poor human drivers, the accident also raises the possibility that the cars may be dangerous if they aren’t operating optimally.
As a result, it’s unclear whether future testing will take place on public roads, or if testing will be confined to specific test sites. Several states, for example, test autonomous cars in limited sites.
Autonomous vehicle technology will surely move forward. But at what pace and what focus remains to be seen.