Fatal Uber Crash Spurs Call for Nationwide AV Test Ban

The pedestrian killed by a self-driving car Uber in Tempe, Ariz., has led consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog to call for a nationwide moratorium on autonomous vehicle testing.

Elaine Herzberg, 49, was struck by the self-driving car at about 10 p.m. on Sunday, March 18, as she crossed a road in Tempe, where the car was operating in autonomous mode with a safety driver behind the wheel.

In an emailed statement written by police detective Lily Duran, she confirmed Herzberg was walking outside the crosswalk when the accident happened. A police investigation is ongoing.

Further reports noted Herzberg was pushing a bicycle loaded down with shopping bags and the AV, which was traveling 38mph in a 35mph zone, did not appear to attempt to brake.

The accident, which represents the first reported fatality involving a self-driving vehicle, led to Uber’s announcement Monday that it would suspend all self-driving operations, including those in Phoenix, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Toronto.

“Our hearts go out to the victim’s family,” an Uber representative wrote in an emailed statement. “We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident.”

Consumer Watchdog drew attention to the lack of regulations in Arizona as a potential factor leading to the incident. The state has some of the most lax regulations on self-driving cars of any in the US.

That laissez faire approach has attracted several companies to test both cars and trucks within its borders. GM Cruise and Lyft have also tested self-driving cars in the state, as has Waymo — the autonomous vehicle project from Google parent company Alphabet.

“Arizona has been the wild west of robot car testing with virtually no regulations in place,” the nonprofit group’s privacy and technology project director, John Simpson, noted in a statement. “That’s why Uber and Waymo test there. When there’s no sheriff in town, people get killed.”

However, preliminary statements by Tempe police, as reported Monday night by the San Francisco Chronicle, indicated Uber was not at fault.

“The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them,” Sylvia Moir, Tempe’s police chief, told the Chronicle. “His first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision.”

Moir expressed the opinion after viewing video of the accident, which has not yet been publically released, that “it’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode [self-driving or under human-control] based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway”.

In light of the ongoing investigation, Consumer Watchdog called for a national stop on all AV testing on public roads until the complete details of this accident were made public.

“Uber simply cannot be trusted to use public roads as private laboratories without meaningful safety standards and regulations,” Simpson added.

The incident follows the recent release of a letter from five Democratic senators voicing opposition to a federal bill that would clear hurdles for automakers to get thousands of AVs on the road, pointing out the legislation does not address issues with cars that have partial automation.

— Nathan Eddy is a filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter @dropdeaded209_LR.

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