Driverless car manufacturers have been promising their cars will be safer without a driver to commit human error. But an autonomous vehicle crash in Arizona last week killed a pedestrian and raised the question if self-driving cars are ready for the road.
On Sunday night, March 17, 2018, an autonomous vehicle operated by Uber struck and killed a women walking on a street in Tempe, Arizona. The vehicle had a backup emergency driver behind the wheel, but that driver apparently was not able to react to the presence of the pedestrian. A report indicated the vehicle was traveling approximately 40 miles per hour and did not slow prior to the collision.
Arizona and Michigan Welcome Autonomous Vehicle Testing
Like Michigan, Arizona’s governor, Doug Ducey, has been working to find ways open his state up to developers and self-driving vehicle manufacturers, including Waymo and Uber. In 2015, he used an executive order to create a regulation-free environment for testing.
Michigan legislators have acted to promote autonomous technology and testing as well. However, in this state this took the form of a 2016 set of laws authorizing the purchase and use of self-driving cars assuming those vehicles had passed national regulatory standards.
Federal lawmakers have taken up the matter as well, considering a set of nationwide safety standards and preventing states from regulating autonomous vehicles more closely. A bill is currently being considered by the Senate in Washington (it has already passed the House). On September 12, 2017, the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a revised set of voluntary guidelines for the self-driving vehicle industry. The revisions put the development of safety standards in the hands of the manufacturers themselves.
Arizona, for its part, has chosen to leave regulation of the autonomous vehicle industry to the federal government. John Halikowski, director of the Arizona Department of Transportation had previously told the New York Times:
“We shouldn’t be getting in the way by prescribing regulations when we really don’t know how the equipment will perform.”
Tempe Accident Adds to a List of Self-Driving Crashes
The autonomous vehicle crash appears to be the first pedestrian death related to testing of self-driving technology. But it was not the first time an autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicle was involved in a motor vehicle accident. In 2016, Joshua Brown was killed in Florida when his Tesla Model S Autopilot feature failed to brake for a semi-truck turning in front of it. Around the same time, a Michigan resident Albert Scaglione’s Tesla Model X SUV collided with a concrete barrier.
Both of those vehicles were using a fully automated radar and camera system developed by Tesla to allow their vehicles to steer themselves for short periods of time. The company included a warning that drivers needed to keep their hands on the steering wheel and remain alert even while using the device.
Even Uber’s Arizona tests haven’t been without casualties. On March 24, 2017, Alexandra Cole and her 2008 Honda CRV was in an autonomous vehicle crash with Uber’s self-driving Volvo SUV. The self-driving car was flipped onto its side and struck two more cars waiting at the intersection. However, a police investigation into the crash determined that the self-driving car was not at fault for the accident, and the tests continued.
Autonomous Vehicle Crashes Raise Questions About Safety
No one in Arizona’s government, or at the national level, seems prepared to enforce safety regulations on self-driving vehicles. But following the fatal pedestrian accident in Tempe, Uber quickly and voluntarily suspended its testing in Tempe, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto. Even though there are still only a handful of autonomous vehicle accidents, the crash served as an abrupt and violent reminder that self-driving technology is still experimental and not ready for consumer sales.