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Bound to happen sooner or later: pedestrian killed by robot car


Uber has suspended its experiments with self-driving cars after a pedestrian was killed in Arizona. Uber had been testing its autonomous taxi service in Tempe, as well as San Francisco, Toronto and Pittsburgh.

Initial reports indicate that the “robot car” was not at fault for the fatal collision. Nonetheless, the fatality was a setback for Uber and other proponents of self-driving vehicles. And a “told you so” for detractors who say such vehicles are not ready for the real world.

Fatal crash confirms misgivings about self-driving vehicles

A 49-year-old woman was struck and killed by a self-driving Uber car as she walked her bike onto a road in Tempe, Arizona. The car was part of an experimental program by the hired ride company. Per Uber policy (and an agreement with the state), there was a human driver at the wheel when the collision occurred. However, that driver did not brake or swerve, which raises the question of whether it is feasible for a human to take the controls in time to avoid a crash.

Tempe police have suggested that the pedestrian was at fault. The accident occurred at night, mid-block (not at a crosswalk) on an unlighted stretch of road. The Uber driver did not see the woman before impact and the car did not automatically slow itself or take evasive action.

But it won’t be surprising if Uber is sued for wrongful death by the family of Elaine Herzberg. Such a lawsuit would challenge whether Uber and the manufacturer have really worked the bugs out. For instance, were the cars properly programmed to account for pedestrians and bicyclists?

It won’t be the last self-driving car fatality

On paper, autonomous cars are safer than human-operated cars. They are equipped with radar that can see far ahead and sense danger. They never get sleepy or distracted. Mile for mile, robot cars have proven to be involved in fewer crashes.

Nonetheless, there have been high-profile accidents. A human driver was killed in 2016 when his test vehicle collided with a tractor-trailer while in autopilot mode.  Earlier this year, a Tesla on autopilot plowed into a parked fire truck at 65 mph (miraculously no one died).

Statistically speaking, there will be more deaths. Although Uber has suspended its program indefinitely, 21 states have approved testing of autonomous vehicles and governors in another 11 states governors have authorized it by executive order.

In the next few years we can probably expect to hear about:

  • The first child killed by a robot car
  • The first fatal collision between two self-driving cars
  • The first single-car fatality involving an autonomous vehicle
  • The first crash involving an autonomous bus or 18-wheeler
  • The first “rogue car” that drives itself up on a sidewalk or crashes into a storefront

What will the future of car accidents look like?

We can also expect to see precedent-setting lawsuits, against companies like Uber and carmakers such as Tesla, as the laws and liability issues are sorted out in the coming years. There will still be car accidents resulting in injury or death in the future, but hopefully fewer of them.

What do you think? Are you ready for the “robot car revolution?”