Last year, an Arizona Uber driver who was testing out one of the company’s new self-driving SUVs hit and killed a pedestrian. Prosecutors announced on March 4 that Uber will not face criminal charges. However, the driver in America’s first autonomous vehicle fatality might still be charged.
On the night of March 18, 2018, Uber driver Rafaela Vasquez hit Elaine Herzberg while driving a Volvo XC-90 SUV. Vasquez hit Herzberg as she was walking across a multilane road with her bike in Tempe, Arizona. Herzberg was hospitalized but died as a result of injuries sustained in the accident.
The SUV’s autonomous driving system included LIDAR and RADAR sensors that did detect Herzberg’s presence, despite low light driving conditions. Uber’s self-driving SUV has an automatic braking feature connected to its collision detection system.
However, National Transportation Safety Board investigators determined that the XC-90’s automatic braking had been disabled because they had been causing “erratic vehicle behavior.” The NTSB also found that while the system was set up to record possible collisions, it does not provide drivers with crash warnings.
Less than two weeks after the accident, Uber and Herzberg’s family reached an out of court settlement, the terms of which were undisclosed. The company also suspended its self-driving car testing program throughout North America.
Fatal Human Error
The prosecutors chose not to file charges against Uber because of mounting evidence suggesting that operator error caused the crash. Dashcam video from inside the XC-90 showed that Vasquez looked down at her lap seconds before the crash occurred.
Tempe police secured records indicating Vasquez was streaming The Voice on Hulu at the time of the crash. In fact, she spent 6 of the 22 minutes she spent driving on March 18 watching the singing competition show. Consequently, the official police report blamed the accident on Vasquez’s lack of road awareness.
Vasquez claimed that she was looking at the SUV’s autonomous interface when the crash occurred during her initial meeting with NTSB investigators.
Though prosecutors have yet to file charges against Vasquez, they have called for a video expert to determine if the driver had time to hit the brakes before the fatal collision happened.
Are Self-Driving Cars Actually Safe?
Although Uber will not be charged in the self-driving fatality case, its autonomous vehicle fleet is not going to launch anytime soon. The Arizona fatality looks to be a clear-cut case of a driver being too preoccupied to operate a vehicle safely. But what good is a powerful collision detection system if it does not warn operators of imminent crashes?
It’s also worth noting that Uber knew about other problems in its self-driving program before the accident. In early March 2018, now-former Uber operations manager Robbie Miller created a report indicating that Uber’s self-driving cars were accident-prone. At one point, its self-driving cars were driving on sidewalks and getting into collisions on a near-daily basis.
With Uber, Google, and Tesla investing billions to develop autonomous vehicles, self-driving cars seem to be inevitable. But incidents like the Arizona crash could see autonomous driving technology legislated out of existence before it reaches maturity. As such, companies operating in the autonomous space need to rigorously vet both their tech and operators before putting them on the road. The future quite literally depends on it.