Uber has placed a massive wager on self-driving cars, but its future is on hold for the moment after one of the vehicles it was evaluating in Tempe, Arizona struck and killed a pedestrian.
The company had been testing self-driving cars in Tempe, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Toronto, and for the time being has suspended that testing pending an investigation. The collision occurred over the weekend and the woman who was struck died of her injuries on Monday.
Uber introduced its self-driving vehicles in September of 2017. Some of the vehicles — like those in San Francisco — were used as part of Uber’s massive mapping program, but others — in Pittsburgh, for example — allowed people to hail rides.
Details of the crash in Arizona are sketchy at the moment. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi tweeted the news of the fatality earlier today.
Some incredibly sad news out of Arizona. We’re thinking of the victim’s family as we work with local law enforcement to understand what happened. https://t.co/cwTCVJjEuz
— dara khosrowshahi (@dkhos) March 19, 2018
Gizmodo confirmed that the accident took place at 10 pm on a multilane road. “According to Tempe PD, the car was in autonomous mode at the time of the incident, with a vehicle operator sitting behind the wheel. The self-driving vehicle had one operator and no passengers,” according to Gizmodo.
It’s not the first time one of Uber’s driverless cars has been involved in an accident. In 2017, one of the cars was involved in a crash with another vehicle. In December of 2016, one of its cars ran a red light in San Francisco, which resulted in the temporary suspension of the program. It is the first time a driverless car of any kind has been involved in an accident that resulted in a fatality, though.
One driver of a Tesla operating in autonomous mode was killed when his car crashed into a truck while operating in AutoPilot mode, but an NTSB investigation showed that the driver had been warned repeatedly to place his hands back on the wheel and drive the car. The NTSB is currently investigating the crash in Arizona.
Every manufacturer and seemingly every major technology company is rushing full-speed ahead to introduce self-driving cars to highways around the world. But the questions that endure to this day are the same that industry observers have been asking since the very beginning: What happens when someone inevitably gets killed?
Considering the fact that every mind in Silicon Valley is working toward making Level 5 autonomy a reality, we don’t seem to have gotten all that far. Four years ago, the MIT Technology Review covered advancements in autonomous technology and reported that Google’s nascent program was decades from becoming a reality. Google’s director of its automotive program, Chris Urmson, fully disclosed the challenges that year:
Among other unsolved problems, Google has yet to drive in snow, and Urmson says safety concerns preclude testing during heavy rains. Nor has it tackled big, open parking lots or multilevel garages. The car’s video cameras detect the color of a traffic light; Urmson said his team is still working to prevent them from being blinded when the sun is directly behind a light. Despite progress handling road crews, “I could construct a construction zone that could befuddle the car,” Urmson says.
Pedestrians are detected simply as moving, column-shaped blurs of pixels—meaning, Urmson agrees, that the car wouldn’t be able to spot a police officer at the side of the road frantically waving for traffic to stop.
The car’s sensors can’t tell if a road obstacle is a rock or a crumpled piece of paper, so the car will try to drive around either. Urmson also says the car can’t detect potholes or spot an uncovered manhole if it isn’t coned off.
What repercussions this incident has on the future development of autonomous cars remains to be seen.