WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — "It’s the moment many people in the car industry have feared," wrote Angelo Rychel of 2025 AD, a community dedicated to the driverless revolution. "For the first time, a fully autonomous car is reported to have killed a person."
The death of 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg marks the first fatality involving a fully autonomous vehicle, one of Uber's self-driving Volvo SUVs, and it has sent a shock through the AV (autonomous vehicle) community.
The incident prompted two separate investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). It has also prompted action from states and some of the biggest names in driverless technology to pump the brakes and pull the cars off of public roads until they can figure out what caused the deadly accident.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey issued a statement on Monday suspending Uber's right to operate its driverless vehicles in the state. Arizona's lax regulations have made the state an oasis for AV innovators. The governor stressed that those terms only apply to companies that meet the state's expectation to put public safety first.
"The incident that took place on March 18 is an unquestionable failure to comply with this expectation," Ducey said.
Footage released by Tempe Police Department shows the moments leading up the accident. The Uber AV was reportedly traveling at 38 mph in a 35 zone when Herzberg walked her bicycle into the road in an area without a crosswalk. The vehicle reportedly did not slow down.
The Arizona fatality "could seriously alter the further development and roll-out of the technology," Rychel warned. The incident raises a number of questions about the industry, the technology, the regulatory framework and the biggest question, whether the American public is ready to accept driverless cars.
The effort to earn the public's trust took another hit this week after another deadly crash in California last week involving a Tesla. On March 23, a Tesla Model X SUV, outfitted with self-driving technology struck a highway median and flipped into oncoming traffic.
Tesla is looking into whether the car was in autonomous mode at the time of the crash. Both the NTSB and NHTSA announced this week that they are looking into the incident.
While there are roughly 100 automobile fatalities every day in the United States, the high-profile accidents in the driverless vehicle space have some industry leaders insisting that now is the time for a "substantive" debate about technology safety, before the public overcorrects.
Intel senior vice president Amnon Shashua warned, "More incidents like the one last week could do further harm to already fragile consumer trust and spur reactive regulation that could stifle this important work". Intel provides data processing technology for Google's Waymo, an AV giant that has been road-testing driverless car technology since 2009.
COMPANIES PUMPING THE BRAKES ON AV TESTING
Uber immediately took their driverless cars off the public roads in Arizona, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Toronto after last week's fatality. Local police are not holding the company responsible for the incident and the company CEO Dara Khoso has pledged to work with authorities "to understand what happened."
Uber's exodus from Arizona on the orders of Gov. Ducey mark the second location the company has lost permission to operate. In 2014, Uber began its self-driving pilot program in San Francisco, but left California in 2016 after the Department of Motor Vehicles confronted the company about its failure to secure the required permits for testing.
Nvidia, the company that supplies chips to a number of autonomous automakers, including Uber, announced on Monday that it is suspending public road testing of its five-car fleet so they can learn from the Uber incident. CNN reported that the decision was made "out of respect for what happened" in Arizona and that the company essentially believes its technology is safe. Nvidia's cars had been operating in California and New Jersey.
Toyota, which recently invested more than $2.8 billion to fast-track research and development of a fully autonomous vehicle, announced that it is temporarily pausing public road testing.
A company spokesperson cited the "emotional effect" of the Tempe crash on its test drivers. The company, which aims to equip some of its vehicles with automated (Chauffeur mode) technology by 2020, will continue to test its fleet of Lexuses on closed courses in Michigan and California.
COMPANIES HITTING THE GAS
Waymo, Google's self-driving car unit, confirmed this week that it will continue pressing ahead. In a press conference earlier this week, the company announced it was getting ready to roll out its Jaguar I-Pace later this year in an autonomous ride-sharing program that will debut in Phoenix, Arizona. The company remains confident in the safety of its systems after putting its fleet through 5 million miles of testing on public roads.
Waymo CEO John Krafcik also slammed Uber at a recent auto trade show in Las Vegas, saying that his automated system "would be able to handle situations" like the pedestrian in Tempe.
Tesla issued a statement over the weekend saying the company will have a full self-driving capability ready by the end of 2019. While the company is confident in the safety of the new system, they do not know when they will be able to get it approved by regulators and to market. "The recent Uber accident has not helped."
CEO Elon Musk is hopeful he can sway regulators by demonstrating Tesla's self-driving cars are two to three times less likely than a human driver of causing loss.
Despite the positive outlook, Tesla's autonomous vehicle unit could take hit after one of its vehicles was involved in a crash in California on March 23. There were no also the subject of an NTSB investigation after a partially autonomous vehicle also
General Motors is also continuing to press forward and sticking to their 2019 timeline for putting autonomous vehicles on the roads. "Our plans to commercially launch in a dense urban environment commercially launch in dense urban environments in 2019 remain unchanged but, as we’ve said from the start, we will not launch until we are satisfied that it is safe to do so," GM said in a statement last week.
Ford is continuing to test their autonomous vehicles in Florida as the company pushes toward a fully autonomous vehicle in commercial operation by 2021. The U.S. auto giant released a statement earlier this week saying their road tests would continue pending the results of the Arizona investigations.
"When more facts and data are available to us, we will make a determination about whether we need to adjust our approach to autonomous vehicle development,” the statement said.
Sadly, this month's Uber and Tesla accidents are not the first deaths in the industry. In 2016 a Tesla sedan collided with a truck in Florida, killing the Tesla driver. In that case, however, the car was still partially operated by the human driver and not fully autonomous.
Proponents of the driverless revolution have often seized on the fact that every serious road incident involving an autonomous vehicle had some element of human error involved. Unlike humans, robots don't get road rage, they don't get drowsy, distracted or drunk.
In 2017, Axios reviewed all the reported AV-related accidents in California from 2014 to 2017. The reporters found that out of the 34 reported accidents involving self-driving cars, all but one was caused by human error. The majority of the incidents involved human drivers either rear-ending or bumping into the AV. Others involved the human driver taking the AV out of autonomous mode and then getting into an accident.
With 36 companies testing AVs in the state, there was only one reported crash caused by a driverless vehicle while it was in autonomous mode. The car was traveling at below 10 mph.
Maybe it's the deep connection American's have to taking control of the wheel on the open road, or fears arising from the 2015 successful hacking of a Jeep's control systems. Maybe it's a bad reaction to Disney's "Cars" franchise. Whatever the specific cause, the public remains wary of driverless cars.
In AAA's most recent survey, 63 percent of U.S. drivers say they’d be afraid to ride in a fully self-driving car. Public opinion and comfort is certainly lagging behind the aspirations of AV innovators, but AAA reported that their 2018 survey represents a marked uptick in public sentiment toward autonomous vehicles. Just one year before, roughly three-quarters (78 percent) of U.S. drivers reported being too scared to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle.
Similarly, drivers showed a slight improvement in their feelings about sharing the road with self-driving cars, even though more than 90 percent of crashes are the result of human error. In 2018, nearly half of drivers surveyed said they are wary of sharing the road with a self-driving car.
A recent Pew Research Poll found a similar trend with about 56 percent of respondents saying they do not want to ride in a fully autonomous vehicle. The most popular reason: loss of control. For the 44 percent who wanted a robot chauffeur, they were mainly attracted to the novelty of it.
THE DRIVERLESS ROAD AHEAD
According to the National Conference of State Legislators, 19 states have passed legislation related to self-driving cars and four governors have issued executive orders looking at the issue. Much of the legislation is aimed at investigating how best to regulate the new technology in a way that allows innovation but preserves public safety.
The patchwork of statewide laws has left an opening at the federal level, but it is not clear whether Congress will pass existing legislation regulating self-driving vehicles.
The Trump administration has signaled an openness to a loose regulatory framework with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao describing herself as a "friend of innovation." Whether those views will change in light of this month's fatality remains to be seen.
"Certainly the crash is a good reason to give everyone pause," Russ Martin of the Governor's Highway Safety Association said. "I think there's going to be a big uphill effort to convince consumers that the technology is safe and it's a desirable thing."