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Thomas Curcio
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Self Driving Catastrophe

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Earlier this year we discussed self driving cars and outlined the many factors influencing the success of implementing and creating autonomous vehicle technology including infrastructure, ethics, money, and even legal questions. After last week’s crash in Tempe, Arizona, where a self driving test car hit and killed a pedestrian, these questions are back at the front of everyone’s mind.

Before going into details, we want to extend our thoughts to the family and friends of Elaine Herzberg, the pedestrian who was killed in this accident.

On the evening of March 19, a self driving test car from Uber’s fleet was out on the roads with a safety driver behind the wheel. Everything was going smoothly on the clear night. During this time, Elaine was pushing her bicycle across the same road on her way home. The accident happened in a matter of seconds, the car coming up fast and colliding with Elaine. The safety driver did not see Elaine until too late and left herself no time to act. Elaine died at the hospital a few hours later.

There is a video that was released by the Tempe Police force showing the exterior and interior views of the accident. To be fair, Elaine is very hard to see until the car’s headlights illuminate her, but not only should the artificial intelligence of the car have picked Elaine up through their LIDAR sensors, the human safety driver should have been paying closer attention. It seems the driver was texting and was otherwise distracted throughout the entire portion of the recording. The video can be viewed here, but it is very hard to watch.

Since the accident Uber has ceased all testing and Arizona has banned Uber from testing their self driving car technology within state lines. According to a New York Times’ report, Uber has had trouble with their technology during the last few months leading up to the crash. There has been a huge backlash against Uber and just this week Waymo, who won a lawsuit against Uber for alleged stolen intellectual property and technology blueprints, has come out and said that their technology would not have failed in this situation.

As of right now there is little information that has been released about what went wrong or could have gone wrong with the technology. We do know that Uber, who has been increasing their self driving fleet testing to compete with the larger self driving companies, recently decreased the minimum number of safety drivers required during testing. Where before testers worked in pairs, in order to maintain the level of testing, Uber now sends out solo driver tests. The safety drivers are put in place to intervene if the technology fails in some way. In this situation the safety driver in place was not paying attention and had they been Elaine could be alive today.

This will be a difficult matter to discuss, especially legally, for until we know more about what went wrong with the technology, fault will be hard to place. Uber will ultimately bear the brunt, but time will tell if it will come down to faulty tech or a distracted driver who will be deemed the cause. As of this morning the family has reached a settlement with Uber for wrongful death. 

We will keep you up to date on any news that is released about the driverless technology.

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