After Fatal Uber Crash, Time to Reassess Self-Driving Cars

The fatal accident in which a self-driving Uber SUV struck and killed a woman in Arizona on Sunday will set autonomous cars back and force developers to defend and explain themselves, according industry observers.

Elaine Herzberg, 49, died after being struck by a gray Volvo XC90, operating in autonomous mode with a backup driver behind the wheel, in Tempe, Ariz., on March 18. Police said Herzberg was attempting to cross the street, not using a crosswalk, when the Volvo hit her while traveling about 40mph. An investigation is ongoing.

The accident, apparently the first fatality involving a self-driving car in the US, will force the quickly emerging autonomous vehicle industry to slow down and face up to some harsh realities, some experts said.

Promoters of the technology claim it will make driving safer thanks to long-distance sensing systems, quick reaction times, and advanced AI decision-making. But exactly when autonomous cars will reach that point, and how safe they can ever be, are still open questions.

“That’s the kind of thing that’s going to really push things back an make people realize this technology has a long way to go,” industry analyst Bob O’Donnell of Technalysis Research said in an interview. “It will set back the industry.”

O’Donnell expects companies to question their self-driving car deployment plans and possibly delay rollouts. The incident has already led Uber to temporarily halt all its road tests in the US, and Toyota Research Institute, the Japanese automaker’s Silicon Valley development arm, reportedly has done the same.

Self-driving car opponents are already using the incident to ratchet up efforts against the technology. On Monday, the nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog called for a national moratorium on autonomous car tests.

Industry analyst Michael Ramsey of Gartner expects more activism by opponents.

“It gives them something to grab onto,” he said. The fallout from the accident could influence legislators, regulators and even investors, who have provided the lifeblood of what is still a money-losing technology, Ramsey told The Connected Car.

Several states are now considering new laws or regulations to allow self-driving cars, with California on the verge of permitting fully driverless cars under a long list of conditions. Congress has been debating bills that would let companies put thousands of vehicles on the road with exemptions from some car safety rules. The Senate version of the legislation, called the AV START Act, came under fire from Democrats last week.

The Tempe incident shows the need for legislation, said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota.

“We won’t have all the facts until relevant investigations are complete, but this tragedy underscores the need to adopt laws and policies tailored for self-driving vehicles,” Thune said in an e-mailed statement. “Congress should act to update rules, direct manufactures to address safety requirements, and enhance the technical expertise of regulators.”

Sunday’s accident should be a wake-up call to law enforcement agencies, Gartner’s Ramsey said. They will need to learn how to investigate incidents like this, especially how to collect, protect, and interpret the data that self-driving vehicles generate.

Someday, the car may be the only witness.

In the Tempe incident, the Volvo may not have had time to avoid hitting Herzberg after she stepped into the road, Tempe’s police chief said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. But autonomous cars, which have been promoted as safer than human drivers, are held to a higher standard, O’Donnell said. “It’s supposed to have the ability to see things I can’t see.”

Now proponents will need to be more explicit and realistic about what autonomous cars can and can’t do, he said.

The time has come for autonomous car backers to level with people, wrote Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor of law and engineering at Stanford, in a blog post on Monday.

“Developers need to show that they are worthy of the tremendous trust that regulators and the public necessarily place in them. They need to explain what they’re doing, why they believe it is reasonably safe, and why we should believe them.”

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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