One of Uber’s self-driving cars hit and killed a woman in Arizona on Sunday, in a setback for the rapidly growing autonomous vehicle industry. According to a Reuters report, Uber is suspending tests of its autonomous vehicles in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Toronto.
Self-driving cars are under development by companies including Alphabet Inc and General Motors, in addition to Uber. The technology has been hailed as a way to avoid fatalities from traffic accidents resulting from human error. However, many Americans still have doubts about the safety of autonomous vehicles, and Sunday’s accident is likely to slow, if not halt, the rollout of a technology that has only just begun to move past regulatory obstacles. Legislators were already in the midst of a debate over allowing the vehicles on roads.
According to a statement from Edward Markey, a Democratic Senator:
“This tragic accident underscores why we need to be exceptionally cautious when testing and deploying autonomous vehicle technologies on public roads.”
The victim, Elaine Herzberg, was hit by an Uber car in autonomous mode, in Tempe, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix, at 10 p.m. local time on Sunday. The incident occurred as Herzberg was crossing at a crosswalk. The car was moving at 40 miles per hour, and had a backup operator in the driver’s seat. She later died in the hospital, according to local police.
A San Francisco Chronicle report stated that Police Chief Sylvia Moir said, based videos taken from the vehicle:
“It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway. I suspect preliminarily it appears that the Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident.”
However, Moir did not rule out that the vehicle’s operator could face charges related to the accident.
Uber, as well as Alphabet’s Waymo firm, have lobbied for self-driving cars to be more widely allowed on roads with fewer restrictions. The push has faced some resistance from Democrats and advocacy groups with concerns over safety, and the accident is likely to exacerbate those fears.
According to Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit group that advocates for consumer interests:
“Arizona has been the wild west of robot car testing with virtually no regulations in place. That’s why Uber and Waymo test there. When there’s no sheriff in town, people get killed.”