First Pedestrian Death by Autonomous Vehicle Crash in Arizona

By: Bridget Clerkin March 20, 2018
Uber has suspended its autonomous vehicle testing in multiple states after one of its vehicles killed an Arizona pedestrian.
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The first pedestrian death caused by an autonomous car took place in Arizona last weekend, after a Tempe woman was struck by a self-driving vehicle there while crossing the street.

Part of Uber’s autonomous fleet, the vehicle was in self-driving mode at the time of the accident, Tempe police confirmed, although a test driver was present behind the wheel. The woman, Elaine Herzberg, 49, was walking outside of the marked crosswalk at the time of the incident and made a sudden move into the street, which happened around 10 p.m. Sunday, according to the police report.

In footage recorded by the vehicle's front-facing dash cam, Ms. Herzberg could be observed walking with her bike in a dark center median before stepping suddenly into the road. Tempe police chief Sylvia Moir stated, "It's very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode."

In response to the accident, Uber halted all autonomous testing in Arizona, California, and Pennsylvania. It’s unclear when the company will resume its self-driving experiments.

Several Uber representatives issued statements offering condolences, including CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who said the company’s “hearts go out to the victim’s family,” and that Uber was cooperating with Tempe authorities in the investigation.

It’s not the first time Uber temporarily suspended its autonomous testing after a crash. Company officials pulled the plug on its programs for a short period of time almost exactly one year ago, following another accident involving one of its self-driving cars in Arizona. (No one was injured in that case.)

While it was likely only a matter of time before such an incident occurred, the fatal crash took place in one of the most lenient states for self-driving regulations. Arizona has long courted the burgeoning industry with rules making it easier for companies to experiment there.

Earlier this month, Governor Doug Ducey approved legislation allowing for driverless cars to be tested with no one behind the wheel, and the state offers much more relaxed processes for permitting, reporting, and public disclosure than its closest rival in the self-driving race, California. All told, the governor claimed the bevvy of autonomous-friendly measures has led to more than 600 autonomous vehicles crawling the streets of the Grand Canyon State.

Autonomous vehicles are widely anticipated to become safer than human drivers, but the technology remains extraordinarily experimental. A self-driving program was ruled at least partially to blame for the 2016 death of a Tesla test driver in Florida, and there have been a number of crashes reported to the California DMV.

Those in the autonomous industry say national regulations would make it easier to test the programs and work out the kinks, although progress on any countrywide rules has been stalled in Congress.

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