Experts Believe Uber Fatal Accident Impacts Autonomous Driving Industry

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Experts Believe Uber Fatal Accident Impacts Autonomous Driving Industry PHOTOGRAPH: DPK Photography/Flicker Under Creative Commons | Under CC BY-SA 2.0

Industry experts assessed that companies are hastily deploying their self-driving cars in the streets without conclusive safety guarantees for the public. The reactions came in the wake of the fatal accident involving an Uber autonomous car that hit a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona on Sunday, March 18.

The Uber car involved in the accident was a Volvo XC90. It was in autonomous mode with a human safety driver when it hit and killed the 49-year-old pedestrian identified as Elaine Herzberg. The incident became the first time a self-driving car killed a human.

Aside from Uber, there were several other car companies that have tested the waters on autonomous driving vehicles. Alphabet Inc’s had been testing the Waymo in Phoenix for several years already. General Motors Co. had also been testing its self-driving vehicles in the area.

Following the Uber accident in Tempe, experts were now warning the autonomous driving industry to slow down its development; particularly road testing that proved to be risky for the general public.

Bryan Reimer a research scientist at MIT who specializes in automated driving said that the accident involving Uber self-driving car is a clear proof that autonomous driving technology is not yet ready for large-scale deployment. “Until we understand the testing and deployment of these systems further, we need to take our time and work through the evolution of the technology,” Reimer told MIT Technology Review.

Professor at Arizona State University specializing in AI Subbarao Kambhampati highlighted concerns on the ability of assigned drivers to monitor systems effectively. He said that this is particularly worrying when self-driving cars are undergoing long hours of road testing.

Meanwhile, government officials have also expressed their concerns after the incident. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut opined that the Uber fatal accident warrants a hard-hitting response. “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,” Blumenthal said as quoted by Reuters.

In a statement, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters highlighted the “enormous risk” of testing unproven technologies on public roads while Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx described the incident as a wakeup call to the entire AV industry.

As for the legal implications of the incident, Ryan Calo, a researcher of vehicle autonomy at the University of Washington, said it will unlikely set a precedent. While the company may be liable, it can request for settlement to avoid a case. He believed that the car’s sensors or the algorithm did not detect the pedestrian.

Calo’s assessment was similar to the result of the initial investigation conducted by the police. Chief of Police Sylvia Moir told the San Francisco Chronicle that the victim was crossing dangerously away from the crosswalk. “It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode [autonomous or human-driven] based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway. It is dangerous to cross roadways in the evening hour when well-illuminated managed crosswalks are available,” she said.

Meanwhile Uber postponed a media event at its Tempe facility. The event was supposed to show off the company’s autonomous vehicle technology. Uber had also stopped all vehicle tests of its self-driving cars following the accident.