Self-driving car makers have been trying their hardest to perfect their vehicles to make them safe for widespread use. Uber has been testing Volvo’s self-driving cars since December 2016. So far, the tests have been conducted in Pittsburg, San Francisco, Toronto, and Tempe, Arizona. Up until now, the testing has gone fairly well. There was one crash in March 2017 between an Uber self-driving car and another vehicle, but the crash was found to be caused by the other driver.
Over this past weekend, that track record unfortunately changed for the worse. On Sunday, March 18, an Uber self-driving car, a Volvo XC90 SUV, crashed into Elaine Herzberg, a 49-year-old woman who was walking with her bicycle on a street in Tempe. The woman didn’t survive.
Uber responded by immediately halting self-driving vehicle testing in all four cities. The SUV involved in the crash was outfitted with the company’s full sensing, radar, and computer system and was traveling in autonomous mode with a human safety driver at the wheel. No passengers were on board.
The Tempe police department is still investigating the crash, but the preliminary reports state that the self-driving car was traveling at around 40 miles per hour when it struck Elaine Herzberg. Sgt. Ronald Elcock, police spokesperson, said during a news conference that it did not appear that the self-driving vehicle slowed down before impact. The Uber safety driver did not show signs of impairment, and weather was also not a factor.
Uber has been cooperative with the police in figuring out how and why the crash occurred. The National Transportation Safety Board is sending a team to Tempe to examine “the vehicle’s interaction with the environment, other vehicles and vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and bicyclists.”
This accident is unfortunately likely to be a setback in the continued advancement of self-driving cars. Policymakers and regulators in most states have been hesitant to allow self-driving car makers and companies to test their vehicles in most states.
Arizona and California have been the most accommodating. Arizona also presents an ideal environment for most self-driving vehicle testing since the climate is dry and many roads tend to be wider. As of now, California is expected to allow self-driving vehicles to take to the roads without a human in the driver’s seat this April.
Update: Dashcam footage of the accident has been released to the media. Sam Abuelsmaid, an analyst for Navigant Research who follows autonomous vehicles, said, “From what I see in the video it sure looks like the car is at fault, not the pedestrian.” The investigation is still ongoing.