Is Uber Responsible for Self-Driving Car That Killed Pedestrian?

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  • A self-driving Uber SUV struck a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. The victim, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, was killed.

    The vehicle was not in service at the time, but rather was being tested by Uber as part of an upcoming program utilizing self-driving cars. In fact, there was a human test driver, 44-year-old Rafael Vasquez, though the 2017 Volvo XC90 was in “autonomous mode” at the time.

    The investigation is still in its preliminary stages, but early indications suggest that Vasquez was likely not at fault. The vehicle showed no signs of slowing when it hit Herzberg, who was pushing a bicycle across the street.

    Police are saying the incident may have been unavoidable, even with a human driver. Temple Police Chief Sylvia Moir said: “It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway. The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them. His first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision.”

    In fact, even though the investigation is ongoing, it seems as if Tempe Police are putting the blame for the accident on the victim. Author Janette Sadik-Khan isn’t having it, though. She tweeted: “The first non-driver death of the autonomous age and police are already blaming the victim. ‘Crossing outside of the crosswalk’ was never a valid excuse for traffic deaths, and it provides no cover for autonomous mobility companies.”

    Nevertheless, Uber has placed self-driving car tests on hold in Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto. And Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi tweeted: “Some incredibly sad news out of Arizona. We’re thinking of the victim’s family as we work with local law enforcement to understand what happened.”

    Even if the self-driving car isn’t at fault, this is still a big story because it’s, as far as we know, the first time that a human pedestrian has been killed by an autonomous vehicle. The only other death associated with self-driving cars was a driver in an autonomous Tesla in 2016.

    Based on new rules recently put into place by Arizona governor Doug Ducey, Uber could be held criminally responsible for Herzberg’s death. That being said, most experts still believe self-driving cars are the future. Not just to save money, but (surprisingly) for safety reasons as well. According to Civil Engineering professor Peter Hancock, self-driving cars will ultimately be the safer option. He writes: “The statistics measuring how many crashes occur are hard to argue with: More than 90 percent of car crashes in the U.S. are thought to involve some form of driver error. Eliminating this error would, in two years, save as many people as the country lost in all of the Vietnam War.”

    Regardless of how safe it is, Silicon Valley is going to have a tough sell on its hands. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, 67% of Americans would not feel comfortable riding in a self-driving car. And in a much less scientific Twitter poll, 44% said they’d never ride in a self-driving car while 29% said: “test it for 10 years first.”

    Nevertheless, self-driving cars are still coming. Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving rideshare service, is testing in Arizona and plans to launch in the state later this year.

    Do you think Uber should be found liable for this accident? Let us know in the comments.

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