February 18, 2018
Arizona officials saw opportunity when Uber and other companies began testing driverless cars a few years ago. Promising to keep oversight light, they invited the companies to test their robotic vehicles on the state’s roads.
Then last Sunday night, March 18, an autonomous car operated by Uber — and with an emergency backup driver behind the wheel — struck and killed a woman on a street in Tempe, Ariz. It was believed to be the first pedestrian death associated with self-driving technology. The company quickly suspended testing in Tempe as well as in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto.
The accident was not only a reminder that self-driving technology is still in the experimental stage, and governments are still trying to figure out how to regulate it, but that technology is not flawless and we should always be prepared to do things the old fashioned way when technology cannot always be the answer.
Uber, Waymo and a long list of tech companies and automakers have begun to expand testing of their self-driving vehicles in cities around the country. The companies say the cars will be safer than regular cars simply because they take easily distracted humans out of the driving equation. But the technology is still only about a decade old, and just now starting to experience the unpredictable situations that drivers can face.
It was not yet clear if the crash in Arizona will lead other companies or state regulators to slow the rollout of self-driving vehicles on public roads.
Much of the testing of autonomous cars has taken place in a piecemeal regulatory environment. Some states, like Arizona, have taken a lenient approach to regulation. Arizona officials wanted to lure companies working on self-driving technology out of neighboring California, where regulators had been less receptive.
But regulators in California and elsewhere have become more accommodating lately. In April, California is expected to follow Arizona’s lead and allow companies to test cars without a person in the driver’s seat.
Federal policymakers have also considered a lighter touch. A Senate bill, if passed, would free autonomous-car makers from some existing safety standards and pre-empt states from creating their own vehicle safety laws. Similar legislation has been passed in the House. The Senate version has passed a committee vote but hasn’t reached a full floor vote.
“This tragic incident makes clear that autonomous vehicle technology has a long way to go before it is truly safe for the passengers, pedestrians, and drivers who share America’s roads,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut.
The Uber car, a Volvo XC90 sport utility vehicle outfitted with the company’s sensing system, was in autonomous mode with a human safety driver at the wheel but carrying no passengers when it struck Elaine Herzberg, a 49-year-old woman, on Sunday around 10 p.m.
Sgt. Ronald Elcock, a Tempe police spokesman, said during a news conference that a preliminary investigation showed that the vehicle was moving around 40 miles per hour when it struck Ms. Herzberg, who was walking with her bicycle on the street. He said it did not appear as though the car had slowed down before impact and that the Uber safety driver had shown no signs of impairment. The weather was clear and dry.
Uber said it would work with the police.
“Our hearts go out to the victim’s family,” an Uber spokeswoman, Sarah Abboud, said in a statement. “We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident.”
Tempe, with its dry weather and wide roads, was considered an ideal place to test autonomous vehicles. In 2015, Arizona officials declared the state a regulation-free zone in order to attract testing operations from companies like Uber, Waymo and Lyft.
“We needed our message to Uber, Lyft and other entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley to be that Arizona was open to new ideas,” Doug Ducey, Arizona’s governor, said in an interview in June 2017.
Using an executive order, Mr. Ducey opened the state to testing of autonomous vehicles that had safety drivers at the wheel, ready to take over in an emergency. He updated that mandate earlier this month to allow testing of unmanned self-driving cars, noting that a “business-friendly and low regulatory environment” had helped the state’s economy.
Even when an Uber self-driving car and another vehicle collided in Tempe in March 2017, city police and Mr. Ducey said that extra safety regulations weren’t necessary; the other driver was at fault, not the self-driving vehicle.
But on Monday, Mark Mitchell, Tempe’s mayor, called Uber’s decision to suspend autonomous vehicle testing a “responsible step” and cautioned people from drawing conclusions prematurely. Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for Mr. Ducey, said the updated order from the governor “provides enhanced enforcement measures and clarity on responsibility in these accidents.”
In California, where testing without a backup driver was just weeks away from being permitted, Jessica Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Motor Vehicles, said officials were in the process of gathering more information about the Tempe crash. Waymo, Lyft and Cruise, an autonomous vehicle company owned by General Motors, did not respond to requests for comment.
In a news release, the National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a team of four investigators to examine “the vehicle’s interaction with the environment, other vehicles and vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and bicyclists.”