Lax regulation or unavoidable collision? Questions remain for self-driving Uber accident

November 30, -0001 Chad Prevost

 The car in the incident was a Volvo XC90 SUV.  (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The car in the incident was a Volvo XC90 SUV. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The day that many observers of the development of autonomous vehicles have dreaded arrived Monday when a pedestrian was struck by a self-driving vehicle and later died. The SUV was being tested by Uber in Tempe, Arizona.

The U.S. Consumer Watchdog organization has called for a national moratorium on “all robot car testing on public roads until the complete details of this tragedy are made public and are analyzed by outside experts.”

Consumer Watchdog Project director, John Simpson, blamed lax regulation for the accident. “Arizona has been the wild West of robot car testing with virtually no regulations in place,” he said. “When there’s no sheriff in town, people get killed.”

The Uber had a forward-facing video recorder, which showed the woman was walking a bike at about 10 p.m. and moved into traffic from a dark center median. "It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode,” Sylvia Moir, police chief in Tempe, Arizona, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

"The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them," Moir said, referring to the backup driver who was behind the wheel but not operating the vehicle. "His first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision."

The victim, Elaine Herzberg, 49, was walking her bike outside of the crosswalk. The car was most likely going about 38 miles per hour, Moir said. The 40 mph sign was closest to the accident site, disputing previous reports that the vehicle was going over the 35 mph limit.

The car in the incident was a Volvo XC90 SUV. Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi said on Twitter that the company was working with local law enforcement to understand what happened, while the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are both sending teams to Tempe.

Uber is suspending the autonomous vehicle trials in all North American cities while investigation takes place. It has been testing in Pittsburgh since 2016 and is also carrying out trials in San Francisco, Toronto and the Phoenix area, which includes Tempe. Last year, Uber took its autonomous vehicles off the roads after an accident that overturned a Volvo SUV, also in Arizona, but the program was later reinstated.

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In a statement, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers said that Uber was right to suspend autonomous vehicle trials while the accident is being investigated. “In 2016 the IMechE in our case study on autonomous and driverless cars raised the needs to address societal questions before highly and fully automated cars are both accepted and legally able to be positioned on our roads,” said head of engineering Jenifer Baxter. “Engineers will need to create an environment where connected autonomous vehicles can operate safely with or without an operator during the transition period to a fully autonomous vehicle system. This transition period could last for several decades.”

Volvo has issued the following brief statement. “We are aware of this incident and our thoughts are with the family of the woman involved. We are aware that Uber is cooperating with local authorities in their investigation.”

Carmakers and tech companies are likely to considerably delay their rollout of fuller autonomous driving after the death, said Barclays analyst Brian Johnson.

The industry has been in a self-driving development frenzy. A number of automakers already sell vehicles rated at "Level 2," or hands-on autonomous functionality. And all of them are in a rush to get to Level 5, which would make steering wheels and pedals unnecessary.

Thanks to Waymo v. Uber, the lawsuit filed against the ride-sharing company for Anthony Levandowski’s alleged theft of 14,000 documents and the misappropriation of Google trade secrets, some of the former Google employee's rush to test--at the expense of testing--is now a matter of public record. “We don’t need redundant brakes & steering, or a fancy new car, we need better software,” Levandowski wrote in an email to Larry Page in January 2016.

“To get to that better software faster we should deploy the first 1000 cars asap. I don’t understand why we are not doing that. Part of our team seems to be afraid to ship.” Shortly thereafter, Levandowski would leave to found his own self-driving trucking company, which was quickly acquired by Uber. Whatever your stance on autonomous, in context of the recent death, his comments don't reflect well on the company.

At the same time, Waymo, Google's self-driving unit, has tested its technology the most of any company, and may at the same time be the most conservative about the decision to launch commercially. Last month, Waymo received approval to operate a self-driving ride-hailing service in Arizona, but it has not announced when that will begin, although they did a smaller test of a Class-8 commercial truck in Atlanta last week.

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