Uber suspends self-driving car program after this terrible accident

Uber suspends self-driving car program after this terrible accident
Uber halts its driverless car program in several cities after pedestrian death in Tempe, AZ. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

An Arizona woman was struck and killed over the weekend by a self-driving Uber test car, prompting the company to halt its autonomous vehicle program on Monday.

The vehicle did have a human in the driver’s seat, but was operating in autonomous mode when it struck Elaine Herzberg, 49, while she was crossing the street. Tempe police say Herzberg was “walking outside of the crosswalk” when she was hit.

Although Uber extensively maps the locations where it conducts testing, the self-driving functions of such cars are still experiencing kinks in reacting to unanticipated driving scenarios. In light of the accident, Uber has suspended its testing programs in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Phoenix. Herzberg was hit in Tempe, just outside of Phoenix.

In a statement, Uber spokeswoman Sarah Abboud said, “Our hearts go out to the victim’s family. We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident.”

Uber has been in a race with other companies trying to implement successful driverless services. Alphabet Inc.’s autonomous car unit, Waymo, and General Motor’s Cruise Automation have also developed similar technologies.

The Associated Press reported on Jan.17 of this year that Uber’s test vehicles had given 50,000 paid rides under their autonomous vehicle program at that point. The ultimate goal of Uber’s program was to eventually have completely driverless cars once it was deemed safe to do so.

Eric Meyhofer, Advanced Technology Group leader for Uber, expressed the company’s commitment to their driverless program in 2017. He told The Associated Press, “Once we can check that box, which we call passing the robot driver’s license test, that’s when we can remove the vehicle operator.”

Robotics expert Missy Cummings at Duke University said the regulations of driverless car tests in public have been lax. In an interview with The Washington Post, she said “We’re not holding them to any standards right now. Just because you map an area doesn’t mean your computer system is necessarily going to pick up a pedestrian, particularly one that wasn’t in a crosswalk.”

Because Arizona already allows autonomous vehicles to operate on its roads without drivers, it’s become a testing ground of sorts. Waymo has used such driverless vehicles to transport passengers in the state already.

But Cummings said accidents like what happened to Herzberg are inevitable with current capabilities being introduced in such a preliminary public testing phase.

“If you’re going to take that first step out, then you’re also going to be [the] first entity to have to suffer these kinds of issues,” she said.

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