Uber autonomous car kills pedestrian, fate of human driver in question

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A self-driving car operated by Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona on Sunday night. A human driver was behind the wheel who could have overridden the autonomous mode at any time. Uber has suspended autonomous vehicle testing in Tempe, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto after the incident (New York Times). 

While self-driving cars have been in accidents before, later investigation found that the autonomous technology was not at fault. By striking a pedestrian, who always has the right of way, this death marks a potential blow to the industry that has struggled to operate in the unpredictable traffic of city roadways.

Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir told the San Francisco Chronicle that it seemed that Uber’s autonomous vehicle seemed to be following traffic laws after preliminary investigation. The pedestrian crossed the road outside of a crosswalk, brightly painted areas that self-driving sensors are programmed to be extra careful around.

Future of the backup driver

The fate of the human driver behind the wheel has been called into question after Moir told S.F Chronicle she wouldn’t “rule out the potential to file charges against the (backup driver) in the Uber vehicle,” Moir told the S.F. Chronicle.


There are five levels in the evolving world of self-driving cars, zero being no automation while five is a truly driverless future (IoT for All). As of now, we’re in level three where human operators are behind the wheel in a supervising role. But humans as backup drivers does little to increase safety, says Steve Viscelli, sociologist of the University of Pennsylvania.

“That’s why companies like Uber want to go straight to Level 4 or 5… people’s reaction times are terrible in Level 3, because inevitably you zone out” says Viscelli, who’s also the host of the Promise and Peril of Self-Driving Trucks podcast.

From Isabel Harner’s Medium page, Director of Marketing for IoT For All

But Viscelli stresses that autonomous vehicles are a long way from safely navigating urban roadways. “Humans are just really good at knowing unusual situations that needs to be anticipated… machines aren’t that smart yet.” 

Uber has not mentioned whether Sunday’s accident will affect it’s line of autonomous trucks, which already haul commercial goods on non-urban roads in Arizona (New York Times). The simplicity of rural highways are ideal for a technology that thrives on monotonous conditions.

(Read more from WikiTribune on how trucking will be the first casualty of self-driving cars).

Future of testing self-driving cars

Arizona is an important testing ground for self-driving technology. The state allows autonomous cars to be tested without a human behind the wheel, (New York Times) and an arid climate that is perfect for car sensors that struggle with rain and snow. Uber has not said how long it will ban testing. 

Uber previously suspended self-driving testing in March 2017, after a vehicle-on-vehicle collision also in Tempe, Arizona. The autonomous car was later ruled not at fault by police, Uber resumed testing self-driving cars less than a month later (Washington Post). 

Help us report on self-driving technology. Contribute through EDIT STORY, or offer suggestions via TALK. 

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