Uber autonomous car kills pedestrian, future of human 'supervisors' in question

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A self-driving car operated by Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, on Sunday night. The human driver behind the wheel at the time of the accident could have overridden the car’s autonomous system at any time. Uber 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, subsequent investigations have found the autonomous technology in operation at the time not to have been at fault. The death of a pedestrian – who always has right of way – 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 preliminary investigation suggested Uber’s autonomous vehicle seemed to have been following traffic laws. The pedestrian crossed the road outside of a crosswalk, brightly painted areas around which self-driving sensors are programmed to be particularly sensitive.

Future of the backup driver

The fate of human drivers behind the wheels of autonomous vehicles has been called into question after Moir told the San Francisco Chronicle she wouldn’t “rule out the potential to file charges against the (backup driver) in the Uber vehicle.”

There are five levels in the evolving world of self-driving cars, from Level 1, denoting basic cruise control, up to Level 5, indicating a completely driverless vehicle (IoT for All). In a Level 3 vehicle, now typically in use, a human operator sits behind the wheel in a supervisory role. Human backup drivers, however, do little to increase safety, says Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at 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 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 autonomous vehicles are a long way from safely navigating urban roadways.

“Humans are just really good at knowing unusual situations that need to be anticipated … machines aren’t that smart yet,” he says. 

Uber hasn’t said whether Sunday’s accident will affect its 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 in an arid climate that is perfect for car sensors that struggle with rain and snow. Uber hasn’t 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. The autonomous car was later ruled not at fault by police, and 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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