Uber has been researching self-driving car functionality, but autonomous vehicles bring unique challenges. An autonomous vehicle is a self-driving car that should be able to perform necessary functions by sensing external stimuli. However, in 2018, an autonomous Uber vehicle in Tempe, Arizona hit and killed a woman and the safety driver riding in the vehicle at the time has been charged with negligent homicide.
Investigating the Crash
The National Transportation Safety Board investigating the accident found that the crash was caused by human error, but also spoke out against Uber. The NTSB stated that Uber’s safety culture was weak, and that the company should have put more emphasis on safety. Uber has not yet made a comment on the charges against the driver who was overseeing the vehicle at the time of the crash.
It was also reported that prior to the crash, these test cars were having to have human intervention frequently. This means it was a known variable at the time of the crash that human oversight was needed. In addition, the automatic emergency braking system was disabled in the car which forces the safety driver to intervene when necessary. These factors led to the driver being charged with negligent homicide.
The crash in Tempe, Arizona is believed to be the first fatality involving an autonomous car, and self-driving technology. Due to this, there are few federal and state laws on liability regarding autonomous cars, and Arizona prosecutor’s stated in 2019 that Uber would not be liable for the crash.
The driver who was in the autonomous vehicle at the time of the crash pleaded not guilty to the charges brought against her. However, she is being held liable for the accident as investigators believe she was watching a video on her phone and not paying attention to the road when the pedestrian was struck. By being distracted by her phone, she was unable to break in time to avoid hitting the pedestrian. Notably, the Uber vehicle was traveling 40 miles per hour when it hit the victim who was walking her bicycle across the street.
“This accident may have occurred in Arizona, but the ramifications are national,” explained personal injury attorney Lin McCraw from The McCraw Law Group. “Autonomous vehicles are being implemented more and more across the country. Driverless cars are already legal in Texas. Our legal system is going to need to catch up to this tech to determine who is liable and who is not.”
After this fatal collision, Uber temporarily halted the testing of these vehicles, as questions arose about who should be held responsible. This halt did not last long, as a year after the fatality Uber had autonomous cars return to the road with stricter guidelines and internal regulations. While the accident was attributed to driver errors, this accident caused investors to lose faith in Uber and the future of self-driving cars. The company is failing to meet expectations, and is losing resources by continuing to invest in this technology.
What is the Future of Self-Driving Cars?
The charging of the safety driver is a potentially landmark decision as a precedent is being set. This precedent being that even if the car is fully autonomous, drivers are still responsible for safely operating the vehicle. Technology has come a long way, but it is not perfect. Human intervention is still necessary to prevent fatal car accidents.