Uber Suspends All Self-Driving Tests Following Fatal Crash

A self-driving Uber fatally struck a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz., on Sunday night, leading Uber to temporarily halt tests of self-driving cars in four cities.Elaine Herzberg, 49, was struck by an Uber self-driving car at about 10:00 p.m. on March 18 as she crossed a road in Tempe, police detective Lily Duran wrote in an emailed statement. She was taken to a local hospital but later died from her injuries, Duran added.

The car was operating in autonomous mode and had a safety driver behind the wheel, and Herzberg was walking outside the crosswalk, Duran said. There is still an active investigation. Following the incident, Uber paused all of its self-driving operations, including ones in Phoenix, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Toronto.

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

The Tempe incident appears to be the first reported fatality involving an autonomous car. There was a fatal crash of a Tesla car being driven with Tesla’s Autopilot feature, which isn’t designed to be a self-driving system.

The incident comes at a crucial time in the development of self-driving cars. As most major automakers and ride-hailing companies design and test autonomous vehicles, surveys show deep concerns over safety and regulators at the state, local, and national levels are considering how to deal with the new technology. Waymo has begun giving rides in driverless minivans in the Phoenix area and plans to launch a commercial ride-hailing service without drivers later this year. California is set to allow driverless vehicles on its roads, with certain conditions, beginning April 2.

The collision in Tempe occurred at Curry Road and Mill Avenue, according to the police statement. Two wide, multi-lane streets meet at that intersection, in a relatively flat area between a freeway and an industrial area.

Autonomous cars are still being closely evaluated, New York University business school professor Arun Sundararajan told the Los Angeles Times. “When you release a new technology, there’s a whole bunch of unanticipated situations,” Sundararajan said. “Despite the fact that humans are also prone to error, we have as a society many decades of understanding of those errors.”

The array of sensors on self-driving cars are designed to detect a pedestrian or any other object in the car’s way, even at night and in unexpected places. Safety drivers, who still sit behind the wheel in most autonomous cars, are there to take over the vehicle if the self-driving system malfunctions or doesn’t respond correctly in an emergency. But it takes time for a driver to react to a situation and take control.

Arizona has some of the most lax regulations on self-driving cars of any US state and has attracted several companies to test both cars and trucks within its borders. Uber has been trialing both Volvo SUVs and long-haul trucks in the state. GM Cruise and Lyft have also tested self-driving cars in the state.

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


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