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First Pedestrian Killed by Self-Driving Car

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A pedestrian was killed on Sunday evening in Tempe, Arizona, by a self-driving car operated by Uber, the BBC reports.

The firm confirmed that the vehicle was traveling in autonomous mode with a safety driver, the only vehicle occupant, behind the wheel during the crash. The crash is probably the most significant fatal incident involving a self-driving vehicle since a Tesla driver was killed in 2016 while his vehicle was in semi-autonomous Autopilot mode.

While the accident is under investigation, Uber has decided to stop testing autonomous vehicles on public roads, at least until the event has been fully examined and understood. "Our hearts go out to the victim’s family," a company spokeswoman said in a statement released on Twitter. "We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident."

The crash is being investigated by the Tempe police and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who also investigated the fatal Tesla accident in 2016. The NTSB will investigate who was at fault for the crash: the operator, the software that was supposed to drive the car, or the pedestrian. Uber is cooperating with the investigation.

The San Francisco Chronicle has reported that police chief Sylvia Moir has stated that, based on videos taken from the car, "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." Still, she could not yet rule out charges against the backup driver, or confirm what might happen if the car itself were found to be at fault.

Uber has been testing autonomous vehicles in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Tempe. By the end of 2017, their vehicles had driven over two million miles in autonomous mode, suggesting that their technology is progressing rapidly. Currently Uber is only testing their vehicles with trained safety drivers. These drivers sit behind the steering wheel and are trained to take over control whenever the vehicle makes a mistake or if an unsafe condition occurs. In March 2017 Uber's safety drivers had to take over about 10 times for every 8 miles driven, according to Recode.

The accident could impact on public perceptions of the safety of autonomous vehicles as Akshay Anand, analyst at Kelley Blue Book, has pointed out to USA today: "It's clear that this has the potential to severely impact public perceptions of autonomous technology, and should be handled with utmost prudence by regulators, authorities and the industry alike."

However, it should also be noted that more than 37,000 people were killed on U.S. roads in 2016, and pedestrian deaths rose 9 percent, according to NHTSA. Full driverless systems could theoretically save lives by being more alert and capable than human drivers and relieving them of all control of vehicles.

Update: Tempe Police have now released footage of fatal crash from inside self-driving Uber, but it raises more questions than it answers. In the 14-second video, the autonomous vehicle is seen failing to slow down before hitting Elaine Herzberg, 49, who is walking her bike across the road. The human Uber safety driver appears to be looking down at something while the vehicle is traveling in autonomous mode.

One video shows dashcam footage of the impact. The other, an Uber operator monitoring the car's controls.

We’ve embedded the tweet with the crash video below. Even though it stops before the moment of the crash, it is still disturbing and graphic.

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Community comments

  • Not an accurate description of event

    by rob grutza /

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Tempe, AZ police say the pedestrian abruptly walked in front of car. Unavoidable, and not Uber's fault.

  • Re: Not an accurate description of event

    by William Smith /

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    I’m not sure what you are objecting to; the article seems fair and well-balanced to me, citing as it does police chief comment that “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” and also noting the traffic accident stats.

    The fact is that an autonomous Uber vehicle has killed a pedestrian while running autonomously. The investigation will tell us who was at fault, again as noted in the article.

  • if that was not an experimental car, but had a owner, and the car was in the autopilot mode

    by Max Max /

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    and if that accident was caused by the car, who would hold the responsibility for that accident? the car owner or the car manufacture?

  • What technology was it using

    by Robert Steyn /

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Surely the car should have picked up the person even in the dark?

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