An Uber self-driving car has hit and killed a pedestrian in the US, marking the first known death of a pedestrian struck by a car in autonomous mode on a public road.
The accident, which happened in Phoenix in Sunday night (local time), is still in the process of being investigated by Arizona Police.
So far reports suggest the 49 year-old pedestrian was not using a designated crossing when she was struck by the Uber controlled Volvo SUV – which had a “human back-up operator” behind the wheel at the time, but was operating in autonomous mode, and going about 60km/h.
Some early reports quote police as saying that Uber is likely not at fault in the accident. (Other reports suggest the Uber was speeding slightly at the time, and showed no signs of braking before hitting the pedestrian.)
Uber, meanwhile, has suspended all public road testing trials of its self-driving cars, and speculation has begun over the impact the incident will have on the self-driving industry, as well as the broader AI tech sector.
As Bloomberg reports, the accident comes at a critical time for the AV industry, with big names like Alphabet (Google), General Motors, and Tesla tipping in billions of dollars, alongside Uber, to develop the technology.
And as MIT Review notes, the accident also comes amid what looked like rapid progress on the technology – and a push to loosen legal restrictions. Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet spun out of Google, was moving to take safety drivers out of its AVs and broached plans to launch a driverless taxi service in Phoenix later this year, MIT said.
But all this hinges on the companies’ holding the confidence of both consumers, and the regulators in cities like Phoenix, who have opened their roads to public testing of the technology.
As Inc.com has put it, this was the incident all of the above companies were dreading: “when a self-piloting car, with a human behind the wheel or not, plowed into someone because there was some combination of conditions that programmers didn’t anticipate.”
Certainly, it raises all sorts of questions, including the most stinging to the industry (and the subject of a Fox News online poll today): should the autonomous vehicles program continue after the deadly crash? At the very least, there are calls to slow it down.
Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at MIT who studies automated driving, says the accident offers “clear proof” the technology is not ready for commercial roll-out.
“Until we understand the testing and deployment of these systems further, we need to take our time and work through the evolution of the technology,” he said here.
On the other hand, many from the pro-autonomous camp have been quick to point out the fact that pedestrians are hit and killed by human-operated cars on an almost hourly basis in some US states.
But the fact remains that one of the key public sales points of this type of autonomous vehicle technology is safety: that computers and AI systems can drive better and react faster than any person.
As Bloomberg reporter Eric Newcomer put it, the repercussions will come down to a “deeper question of do we expect self driving cars to operate more effectively than human drivers?”
Even if Uber and its human driver isn’t legally at fault for the autonomous vehicle Arizona fatality, I’m still interested in why the AV didn’t slow down when detecting (w/ LIDAR or other sensors) a human walking on a median. Wouldn’t most human drivers?https://t.co/C8uSqLl60V pic.twitter.com/FHiv3a4sWQ
— Dan Nguyen (╯°□°)ノ wheres wallace string? (@dancow) March 20, 2018
Then the police chief says this. No. NO. The whole reason we are developing this technology is because it will be better than human drivers. Uber has to fix this before they get back on the road—or go away. pic.twitter.com/yrIIUocmX1
— Alissa Walker (@awalkerinLA) March 20, 2018
The Arizona accident is also drawing comparisons with the Tesla Model S collision with a truck in Florida in May 2016, which claimed the life of the car’s owner – who was behind the wheel at the time, but with the car set to Autopilot.
In that case, the fallout of the fatality was largely contained to Tesla, says Bloomberg, and didn’t seem to hold the industry back.
But experts are warning that the Uber crash is a whole different ball-game.
“A lot of us were surprised that the Tesla fatality did not have greater consequences. The Uber fatality could turn out to be the thing that makes the general public more skeptical,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Law who studies driverless car regulations.
“In Tesla’s Florida crash, the car was purchased by and used by the victim. In the Arizona crash, the vehicle was a test vehicle under the control in every sense by Uber, and the victim was an ordinary person,” Smith told Bloomberg.
“People are going to be aware of this tragedy and this death, even if they are unaware of the hundreds of other people who died in motor crashes today,” he said.