Uber’s luck appears to have run out again. On the night of 18th March, a fatal pedestrian crash occurred, involving a fully-autonomous Uber SUV in Phoenix, Arizona. This marks the first fatality involving a fully-autonomous vehicle. The Volvo was in full self-driving mode with a driver behind the wheel when it struck 49-year old Elaine Herzberg as she pushed a bicycle adjacent to a crosswalk in Tempe.
Uber had suspended its operations in Arizona just a year ago following an incident that left a Volvo SUV overturned.
Investigations that emerged amidst the furore showed that the Volvo was driving just above the speed limit, at around 38 mph (61.2kph). The speed limit was 35 mph (56.3 kph). Worryingly, the self-driving car had not braked or swerved at all, meaning the system might not have even detected Herzberg’s sudden appearance. Self-driving cars are usually replete with laser, radar and video systems that work together to sense road features like cars, obstructions and pedestrians, even in the dark.
However, it has also emerged that Herzberg might not have been walking along a designated pedestrian crossing. She had been attempting to negotiate a confusing multi-lane highway along a serviceable brick path (likely used by emergency services) that had several confusing signs indicating pedestrians were instead not to use it.
Here's an aerial view (facing south). Every entrance to that brick pathway in the median has a sign instructing you not to use it. Per the signage, it is strictly ornamental. pic.twitter.com/jW1DUjiuxb
— 🚗🚌🚚🚲 (@EricPaulDennis) March 20, 2018
In a Twitter thread by Eric Paul Dennis, the crosswalk she took (the x-shaped pink pavement right in the middle of the image) had signs instructing pedestrians to avoid using it. A pedestrian crossing is available about 400 meters (1/4 mile) to the bottom of the satellite image – just out of frame.
While culpability has yet to be established, the outcry over apparently police assumption of pedestrian fault has led to lobby groups and family grief. Be it careless jaywalking, a lack of public infrastructure to ensure pedestrian safety, or a gap in the self-driving algorithm, it remains clear that plenty of work has to be done to ensure road safety in many of our homes.
Following public scrutiny, and fearing driver and passenger sensitivity, numerous firms testing autonomous cars have halted testing activities. These include Uber itself, Toyota and NuTonomy Inc.
With the spread of legislation in countries, increasingly allowing autonomous vehicles on their roads, a better way to negotiate between existing infrastructure, pedestrian education and behaviour, and other traffic features needs to be found.