Uber announced on Monday that it was halting all autonomous car testing after an Arizona woman was struck and killed by one of the company’s self-driving cars. The accident is believed to be the first known fatality involving a pedestrian and an autonomous vehicle.
Video footage posted by a local news outlet shows the self-driving Uber SUV with a damaged hood and right front fender. The 49-year-old woman was reportedly crossing the road outside of the crosswalk when she was hit around Sunday night in Tempe, located 16 kilometers (10 miles) east of Phoenix. She was transported to a local hospital before passing away due to her injuries, according to the Tempe Police Department.
“Our hearts go out to the victim’s family,” Uber stated on Twitter. “We’re fully cooperating with @TempePolice and local authorities as they investigate this incident.”
The SUV was in autonomous mode at the time of the accident but there was a human driver behind the wheel for safety reasons. Therefore, it is unclear what exactly caused the incident – was it negligence of the safety driver, the pedestrian's movements, or failure of the car's autonomous technology?
The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) confirmed they were opening an investigation into the incident, and sending a small team of special crash investigators to Tempe.
The accident will likely raise questions about regulations for self-driving cars, report some outlets. Other companies like Alphabet Inc., General Motors Co., and Baidu are investing billions of dollars into the autonomous vehicle technology because of its potential but, according to Bloomberg, this accident could damage the industry.
It’s already slowed testing: Uber announced it's pulling its vehicles from all public roads in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Toronto, and the greater Phoenix area.
Currently, most states require a human driver to be seated behind the wheel when a vehicle is operating in autonomous mode in case something goes wrong. That’s not the case in Arizona, although in this situation there was someone behind the wheel.
Uber began testing self-driving cars in Tempe in February of last year, paving the way for true autonomy. The fleet of self-driving Volvos arrived in the state after they were banned from California over safety concerns. A month later, Uber suspended its entire self-driving car program while it investigated an accident involving an autonomous SUV, which was later found to not be at fault.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles announced last month it was also eliminating the human driver requirement, going into effect on April 2.
Drivers of semi-autonomous cars have recently been under fire. Earlier this year, a San Francisco man was arrested on DUI charges after falling asleep at the wheel.
That was just weeks after a southern California man was “driving” a Tesla Model S that rear-ended a fire truck, burying itself under its rear.
In 2016, a man in Florida was killed while using the semi-autonomous driving system, after it failed to detect a truck crossing the highway. However, according to reports, he set the speed at 15 kilometers (9 miles) over the posted speed limit and ignored safety precautions given by the vehicle. In the final 37 minutes of his drive, his hands were on the wheel for just 25 seconds.
In all of these cases, a human driver is required to handle much of the driving. Uber’s system, however, is designed to fully replace a human driver, which is hoped to actually improve safety by removing human error.