On Monday, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey ordered Uber to stop testing its autonomous vehicles on public roads in the state, following what is believed to be the first pedestrian death associated with autonomous-driving technology.
One of Uber’s self-driving vehicles struck and killed Elaine Herzberg, 49, as she walked a bicycle across a four-lane street in Tempe, Arizona, the night of March 18. Video footage released by authorities shows the backup driver of the autonomous Volvo XC90 looking away from the road just before the collision. Herzberg, who is wearing black, appears to emerge out of nowhere.
The footage of the crash is “disturbing and alarming, and it raises many questions about the ability of Uber to continue testing in Arizona,” Ducey wrote in an open letter to Uber’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi.
Uber already voluntarily suspended its self-driving programs in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Phoenix and Toronto last week. At least three other companies have followed suit.
Toyota suspended its U.S. autonomous vehicle (AV) testing last Wednesday, saying the incident in Arizona could be emotionally distressing for its drivers. Self-driving startup NuTonomy also halted its pilot tests in Boston at the request of city officials.
On Tuesday chipmaker Nvidia Corp, which supplied the computing platform for Uber’s autonomous cars, announced it was suspending its self-driving tests globally.
The accident is sparking calls for more regulation.
“The Uber accident highlights the need for federal action on safety regulations, said Amitai Bin-Nun, an expert on autonomous vehicles at Securing America's Future Energy (SAFE), a nonpartisan organization that aims to reduce America's dependence on oil.
“In the long-term we need congressional actions…so companies have guidance and certainty to make the right decisions,” said Bin-Nun.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is responsible for motor vehicle safety at the federal level, but it hasn’t established comprehensive standards for AVs. According to a report published last month by BNEF, 21 states have passed AV legislation, and 19 of these enable testing on public roads.
Having federal standards in place would help states and companies “decide what’s road-worthy and not, so it’s not a real-time decision made in the aftermath of emotionally charged events,” said Bin-Nun.
Arizona is known for its lenient policies toward AV technology, and is a testing hub for companies like Uber, Waymo, GM and Intel. Unlike California, the state doesn’t require companies to submit reports on how well their technology is performing.
Internal documents obtained by The New York Times suggest that Uber’s self-driving car program was lagging behind the competition. Waymo, a self-driving car project that spun off from Google’s Alphabet, said its cars traveled an average of nearly 5,600 miles in road tests before a driver was forced to take the wheel and intervene. Uber’s cars reportedly struggled to go 13 miles on Arizona roads without an “intervention.”
Here’s how industry stakeholders and legal experts have responded to last Sunday’s crash.
Was the technology to blame?
Most experts agree that Uber’s system should have been able to avoid hitting pedestrians like the one in Tempe.
Bryant Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies autonomous vehicles, told the Associated Press: “The victim did not come out of nowhere. She’s moving on a dark road, but it’s an open road, so lidar (laser) and radar should have detected and classified her” as a human.
Uber is one of many automated vehicle companies that uses a laser-based mapping system called lidar (light detection and ranging) to anticipate potential obstacles. When functioning properly, lidar should detect objects from hundreds of feet away, even in the dark. The Volvo XC90 sport utility vehicle that struck and killed Herzberg was reportedly equipped with a lidar system made by Silicon Valley-based Velodyne.
Velodyne’s president, Thoma Hall, told the BBC that she was “baffled” by the incident: “Our lidar can see perfectly well in the dark, as well as it sees in daylight, producing millions of points of information,” said Hall, who speculated Uber's on-board computer could be to blame for the crash. “However, it is up to the rest of the system to interpret and use the data to make decisions. We do not know how the Uber system of decision-making works.”
The NHTSA and National Transportation Safety Board are currently investigating the cause of the fatal collision, but it will likely take months before an official report is released.
John Krafcik, the CEO of Waymo, said his company’s autonomous vehicles could have avoided such an accident.
“I can say with some confidence that in situations like that one with pedestrians — in this case a pedestrian with a bicycle — we have a lot of confidence that our technology would be robust and would be able to handle situations like that,” he said during a panel at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention in Las Vegas on Saturday.
On Tuesday, Krafcik unveiled the “world’s first premium, electric, fully self-driving car” at the New York International Auto Show. Waymo plans to buy up to 20,000 electric cars from Jaguar Land Rover, starting with a ride-hailing service set to launch in Phoenix later this year.
Last month Uber paid Waymo $245 million to settle a lawsuit that accused Uber of stealing lidar trade secrets from Waymo.
Top BMW engineer Dr. Klaus Fröhlich expressed less confidence in autonomous vehicles at a conference last week. He said fatal crashes like the one in Arizona are “inevitable” with current technology.
“At the moment, with the quality and ability of the sensors and the computer processing speed and performance, there is no possibility to have highly autonomous cars without accidents.”
Who is liable?
Investigators could find Uber, the manufacturer, or Herzberg responsible for the accident.
According to an interview with Stanford Law School Professor Robert Rabin: “Under conventional tort law principles, if the safety driver failed to exercise reasonable care in avoiding the accident, Uber would be responsible for the driver’s negligence. If the automated features of the AV failed to note the presence of the victim, the manufacturer of the vehicle, as well as Uber, could be held responsible under product liability principles. If the victim was walking in the roadway and her presence was obscured by darkness at the late hour, she might be found partially at fault. At the extreme, if her conduct made the accident ‘unavoidable,’ she might be fully responsible — but this seems unlikely.”
James Arrowood, who teaches the State Bar of Arizona course on driverless cars, said Uber has a good defense because it’s the pedestrian’s responsibility to yield to traffic when crossing outside of a crosswalk.
“The video helps them,” Arrowood told The Arizona Republic. “You would have a difficult time trying to convince a jury the outcome would have been different had it just been a driver in the vehicle.”
The safety driver, Rafaela Vasquez, has come under scrutiny for having a criminal record. She was convicted for attempted armed robbery in 2000 and pleaded guilty to driving without a valid license in 1998, according to Arizona Department of Corrections records. An Uber spokesperson said Vasquez met the company’s standard background-check requirements, which date back seven years.
Should we expect new regulations?
In an op-ed for Forbes, automotive reporter Greg Gardner said the public shouldn’t count on tougher regulations in light of last week’s accident: “In keeping with the Trump administration’s deregulatory binge, the U.S. Department of Transportation has set forth ‘a non-regulatory approach to automated vehicle technology safety,’” wrote Gardner. “For better or worse, states are making the rules as they go along. Those decisions reflect a delicate balance between the economic development benefit of encouraging a new technology and ensuring public safety.”
Aside from Uber’s testing suspension on Monday, it doesn’t appear that any new regulations are in the works for Arizona. Last week, a Department of Transportation spokesman told Fox News “no changes have been made or are immediately forthcoming regarding testing of AVs in the state.”
SAFE’s Amitai Bin-Nun told GTM that he doubts Arizona lawmakers will crack down on other companies testing self-driving technology in the state.
“It’s really important that the responsible development and deployment of autonomous vehicles continues, because that’s the only way to get to the long-term benefit of the technology. I think [Gov. Ducey] for the most part recognizes that.”
The road ahead
What does all this mean for the future of self-driving cars? The opinions are mixed.
Leslie Hayward, vice president of communications for SAFE, told GTM it’s hard to know what will happen next.
“We’re in a new era here. All of this has never been seen or experienced before, so it’s not really possible to draw on previous examples to see how this is going to play out,” she said. “We do hope that testing proceeds prudently but still continues in general.”
Roger Lanctot, an automotive expert for Strategy Analytics, said Uber has made hardware developers like Nvidia and Velodyne “accessories to manslaughter.”
“The fatal crash in Tempe is evolving into an epic fail for Uber with wide-ranging implications for the broader autonomous vehicle testing industry,” wrote Lanctot in a blog post on Tuesday. “This is precisely the type of event that is capable of slaying a nascent industry in the crib.”
Uber's former head of self-driving car operations, John Bares, said the AV industry will get through this “tough moment.”
“[Uber] and the dream of the employees is a mode of transportation that is safer and more efficient for everyone, and clearly events like this are a huge step back, but the dream is still there,” he told the Tribune-Review. “As an industry, we have to pull through. For the longer good of humanity, we have to pull through.”