An Uber self-driving SUV struck and killed a female pedestrian Sunday evening in Tempe, Arizona. The first known autonomous vehicle-related pedestrian death on a public road stunned the AI community and raised public concerns on autonomous driving safety.
Tempe police reported that the accident took place around 10 p.m. local time. The Uber vehicle was in autonomous mode, with a human safety driver at the wheel. The weather in Tempe Sunday night was clear and dry. The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said that it was joining the accident investigation.
Uber immediately suspended all its self-driving testing in North American cities. The company had launched its first self-driving road tests in Arizona only a few months ago.
Arizona is a hotbed of self-driving technologies and there are over 600 self-driving cars on the state’s public roads. The state legislature has for years been cultivating an AV-friendly testing environment that rivals California’s. Two weeks ago Arizona gave the green light for public road testing without human drivers in the vehicle.
There has been no official word yet on whether Arizona regulators will reconsider their relatively accommodating autonomous vehicle testing policies in the aftermath of Sunday’s fatal accident.
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said Sunday’s accident was “incredibly sad news… We’re thinking of the victim’s family as we work with local law enforcement to understand what happened.”
It’s been a yearlong series of scandals for Uber, including a sexual harassment class action suit, the former CEO’s departure, and an exodus of core executives. Last month the ride-hailing giant paid Waymo US$245 million in stock to settle a self-driving technology IP infringement lawsuit.
Google Cloud Chief Scientist of AI/ML Fei-Fei Li tweeted “A fatal self-driving car accident… This is what AI is: it’s deeply impactful to human lives; and it takes all of us to work on it to make it safe, fair and benevolent.”
Director of Microsoft Research Labs Eric Horvitz called for increased diligence in self-driving safety in the wake of the accident, and stressed that “self-driving cars will be held to a higher standard. Automation will almost certainly bring down numbers of deaths on the roads.”
Self-driving vehicles have logged millions of miles on public roads with strong safety records. “The probability of having an accident is 50 percent lower if you have Autopilot on,” says Tesla CEO Elon Musk. When things do go wrong, however, they make headlines. In 2016, the driver of a Tesla in semi-autonomous driving mode was killed after colliding with a truck on a Florida highway. Although the driver had reportedly ignored at least seven safety warnings, the accident severely hit Tesla’s credibility in the semi-autonomous driving market.
Last year in Las Vegas a self-driving bus was involved in a crash with a delivery truck, only two hours after it made its debut. No injuries were reported at the scene. While technically the bus was not responsible for the accident — and the delivery truck driver was cited by police — passengers on the smart bus complained that it was not intelligent enough to move out of harm’s way as the truck slowly approached.
Insiders are saying the Arizona accident is the most serious setback yet for self-driving vehicles, coming at a critical time when the technology was transitioning from research and development to operation and deployment.
Earlier this year, Waymo bought thousands of autonomous-capable Chrysler Pacifica Hybrids. The Alphabet-owned company has tested its self-driving cars in 25 cities across the US. American car maker Ford meanwhile is testing the capability of its own self-driving technology with delivery tasks in some US states.
Many questions remained unanswered: How will the regrettable accident affect autonomous driving R&D and Startups? Will there be a public backlash against autonomous vehicles? Will lawmakers tighten regulations on self-driving cars on public roads?
Synced is covering the story and will continue to update readers with the latest news.
Journalist: Tony Peng| Editor: Michael Sarazen