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The Self-driving Vehicle – Not Ready for Primetime?

On Sunday, March 18, 2018, at 10 pm in Tempe, Arizona, a Phoenix suburb, Elaine Herzberg, 49 was struck by a northbound Uber self-driving car—a Volvo SUV— while walking her bicycle mid-street and not in a designated crosswalk from west to east across the road.  When the crash happened the Uber car was in autonomous mode traveling at 40 mph in the 45-mph-speed-limit zone.

Ms. Herzberg died from her injuries in hospital.  The Tempe Police Department released a 22-second ‘dashcam’ video from the car and video showing the back-up Uber driver, Rafael or Rafaela Vasquez, 44, first with her eyes lidded, then with her expression changing rapidly to focused shock—wide open eyes and mouth— as she sees Ms. Herzberg with her bicycle emerge out of darkness directly into the car’s path lit by the car’s headlights.  Police spokesman Ronald Elcock reportedly said Vasquez “was cooperative and there was no impairment shown.”    

Ms. Herzberg is the first victim of an autonomous test vehicle crash —precisely what should not happen when vehicles are driving autonomously under test conditions also requiring a backup driver.  In 2016 in Florida, the driver of a Tesla Model S was killed when his car operating in autopilot mode crashed into a tractor-trailer crossing its path that it did not recognize.  The distinction here is the test situation and that the victim was a pedestrian.

The testing of autonomous vehicles by Uber has been ongoing in Arizona for months.  A crash without serious injury occurred in March 2017, also in Tempe, when an Uber SUV flipped onto its side.  In this crash, the driver of the other vehicle involved was cited for a violation.

Questions abound.  Is autonomous vehicle technology sufficiently advanced for road testing on public roads or was it merely faulty in some way in this case?  Do the testing regulations provide enough back-up and were they properly followed in this case?  A mix-up in the back-up driver’s name unearthing a criminal record and a four-year prison term may be problematic. (In Colorado, state law prevents people with felony convictions, alcohol or drug-related driving offenses, unlawful sexual offenses, and major traffic violations from working for rideshare companies.  Reportedly in 2017, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission accused Uber of hiring 60 drivers with criminal convictions, and Uber was fined $9.8 million.

It has been said that Ms. Herzberg herself was acting contrary to Arizona laws obligating pedestrians to give vehicles the right of way when crossing outside of a crosswalk. 

Post-crash testing was conducted by the Tempe police, the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  The NTSB reportedly said that “driver inattention was to blame but those design limitations with the system played a major role in the crash.”

In the immediate aftermath, Uber has suspended all road-testing of autonomous vehicles in the Phoenix area, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Toronto.  The relevant county attorney’s office may decide whether to pursue charges in this case.  Late the following day, Uber announced the postponement of an upcoming showcase of its self-driving vehicles at its Tempe facility.

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