49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was killed by a self-driving Uber car while walking across a street in Tempe, Arizona on Sunday night. Following the incident, Uber has pulled its self-driving cars from the roads.
According to the police, the driver behind the wheel was a test driver, Rafael Vasquez. The 44-year-old was operating a Volvo XC90 SUV, one of Ubers self-driving vehicles. There were no passengers in the car at the time of the crash.
This is the first recorded death caused by a fully autonomous car on the road. Tempe Police Department and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are investigating the crash. Theoretically, the safety driver should have been able to intercept from behind the wheel.
Police released a statement that “The vehicle involved is one of Uber’s self-driving vehicles. It was in autonomous mode at the time of the collision, with a vehicle operator behind the wheel.” They added that the vehicle, which was traveling at a speed of 40 mph, showed no signs of slowing down, before the crash.
Uber spokesperson commented on the fatality, with a statement on Twitter, “Our hearts go out to the victim’s family. We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident.”
The accident has sparked a debate regarding the safety of autonomous vehicles and issues of liability in such cases. Following the event, Uber has suspended all its self-driving testing in U.S and Canada.
Tempe Police Sgt. Ronald Elcock said in a press conference that the pedestrian, who was pushing a bicycle laden with shopping bags, “may have been” homeless. Ms. Herzberg was taken to a hospital, following the crash, where she expired.
Police said that the pedestrian was crossing the street mid-block, i.e. not making use of the crosswalk. Elcock added, “None of us ever want to go through this ever again, using the crosswalks will definitely limit this from happening again.”
San Francisco Chronicle also reports that Tempe Police Chief, Sylvia Moir, said that “I suspect preliminarily it appears that the Uber would likely not be at fault in this incident. It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway.”
Investigators are examining a video of the crash, which has not been released to the public.
Moir related that the safety-driver said “it was like a flash”, the pedestrian “walked out in front of them” and “his first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision”.
“I won’t rule out the potential to file charges against the (backup driver) in the Uber vehicle,” Moir added.
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