Uber is taking many of its self-driving cars out of service temporarily, following a crash Friday in Arizona. There were no serious injuries, and police found that Uber’s vehicle had been hit when another car failed to yield. However, the incident is reigniting questions about the safety of self-driving vehicles.
A spokesperson for Uber said that while there was a person behind the wheel at the time of the accident, the vehicle had been operating in self-driving mode. There were no backseat passengers. Uber has stopped operating its self-driving cars on Arizona roads pending an investigation, as well as in San Francisco, and in Pittsburgh, where their autonomous vehicles actually provide ride services to passengers.
The company has been campaigning for more regulators to allow its self-driving vehicles to provide rides to passengers. The vehicles carry a safety engineer as a precaution, who would be able to take control if necessary.
Other companies, such as Google’s Waymo, have been more cautious, hesitating to shuttle ordinary passengers in their autonomous vehicles yet. Many of these companies, including Waymo, have been testing self-driving cars for longer than Uber has.
The crash represents unfortunate timing for the ride-sharing company. Uber has faced a wide range of public relations issues in recent months, including accusations that Uber employees stole intellectual property from Googles autonomous vehicle outfit, Waymo. The future of Uber’s autonomous vehicle efforts greatly depends on the outcome of that case.
Companies such as Uber and Waymo have invested heavily in self-driving cars, betting that they will see widespread use in the near future. For the time being, this will involve sharing the road with human motorists, which presents a number of seemingly simple, but difficult obstacles. Autonomous vehicles must be able to react to unpredictable situations, and to communication from other drivers, such as horns and signaling.
The future of state and federal regulation of self-driving vehicles is also still uncertain. The issue is being debated in state governments, and last year, the Transportation Department released guidelines for developers. While incidents like the Arizona crash create an issue for public perception and policy, the technology industry is hopeful that more self-driving cars on the roads will actually result in fewer injuries and fatalities from motor vehicle accidents.
Over 35,000 people die annually in motor vehicle accidents in the US, most of which are the result of human error, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.