Uber Technologies Inc. has suspended all of its self-driving vehicle testing – including a program in Toronto – after what is believed to be the first fatal pedestrian crash involving autonomous vehicles.
Uber’s testing was halted after police in a Phoenix suburb said one of its self-driving vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian overnight Sunday.
The vehicle was in autonomous mode with an operator behind the wheel when a woman walking outside of a crosswalk was hit, Tempe police Sgt. Ronald Elcock said.
“The pedestrian was outside of the crosswalk, so it was midblock,” Elcock said. “And as soon as she walked into the lane of traffic, she was struck by the vehicle.”
The woman died of her injuries at a hospital.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which makes recommendations for preventing crashes, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which can enact regulations, sent investigators.
“Some incredibly sad news out of Arizona,” said Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi on Twitter.
“We’re thinking of the victim’s family as we work with local law enforcement to understand what happened.”
The testing has been going on for months in Toronto, the Phoenix area, Pittsburgh and San Francisco as automakers and technology companies compete to be the first with the technology.
“The pedestrian was outside of the crosswalk, so it was midblock. And as soon as she walked into the lane of traffic, she was struck by the vehicle.”
— Tempe police Sgt. Ronald Elcock
Uber Canada said Monday in an email that two of its vehicles are being tested in Toronto but they have not been picking up passengers.
It said testing has been conducted since last fall, using software that was studied in simulation and on the test track before being deployed to the road.
But the fatality isn’t likely to derail the driverless vehicle industry because it is at such an early stage in its development, said Ross McKenzie, managing director at the University of Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research.
“I’m shocked. It’s very, very disappointing,” he said.
“It’s shocking because it’s something we aspire to never have happen. The whole purpose of autonomous driving is to make the operation of vehicles safer because you take out of equation the random, unpredictable behaviour of human operators, like speeding to get through an amber light or taking your eyes off the road to pick up a coffee cup.”
He added the incident will serve to further focus the industry on safety.
The Waterloo research centre has a four-car fleet of autonomous car it is currently testing. McKenzie said most of the testing takes place on a closed track but the first tests on a public road took place last year.
More on-road testing is scheduled for this year and he said the incident has not resulted in any immediate change to that schedule.
Canada has been slow to embrace driverless vehicles but some advances have been made.
In January, Suncor Energy Inc. announced it would go ahead with a project to deploy driverless ore-hauling trucks at its remote oilsands mines in northern Alberta to replace the ones humans operate.
The initiative, which follows years of testing, is expected to eliminate about 400 jobs. The Calgary-based company plans to build a 150-truck fleet of 400-tonne capacity Komatsu trucks over the next six years.
The public’s image of the vehicles will be defined by stories like the crash in Tempe, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies self-driving vehicles. It may turn out that there was nothing either the vehicle or its human backup could have done to avoid the crash, he said.
Either way, the fatality could hurt the technology’s image and lead to a push for more regulations at the state and federal levels, Smith said.
Autonomous vehicles with laser, radar and camera sensors and sophisticated computers have been billed as the way to reduce the more than 40,000 traffic deaths a year in the U.S. alone. Ninety-four per cent of crashes are caused by human error, the government says.
Self-driving vehicles don’t drive drunk, don’t get sleepy and aren’t easily distracted. But they do have faults.
“We should be concerned about automated driving,” Smith said. “We should be terrified about human driving.”
Peter Kurdock, director of regulatory affairs for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety in Washington, said the group sent a letter Monday to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao saying it is concerned about a lack of action and oversight by the department as autonomous vehicles are developed. That letter was planned before the crash.
Kurdock said the deadly accident should serve as a “startling reminder” to members of Congress that they need to “think through all the issues to put together the best bill they can to hopefully prevent more of these tragedies from occurring.”