Uber Suspends Testing of Self-Driving Cars after First Fatality

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Uber has temporarily stopped testing its autonomous cars after a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, was struck and killed by one such vehicle, even with a backup driver behind the wheel. The pedestrian was believed to be the first casualty associated with the self-driving technology,  according to Daisuke Wakabayashi, reporting for The New York Times.

The car involved in the accident, a Volvo CX90 sport utility vehicle, was equipped with Uber’s sensing system, and was in autonomous mode with a backup human driver and no passengers when it ran over a 49-year-old woman named Elaine Herzberg, as she was walking with her bicycle and crossing the intersection of Mills Avenue and Curry Road in Tempe around 10 PM, March 18.

Preliminary police investigation revealed that the Uber vehicle was moving at 40 mph when it struck the woman, and it did not appear that the vehicle had slowed down before the impact. There were also no signs that the backup driver was impaired.

An Uber spokesman said the company will cooperate with local authorities in determining the cause of the accident and offered sympathies to the victim’s family.

Besides Tempe, Uber had previously tested its self-driving cars in Pittsburg, San Francisco, and Toronto. The accident is a reminder that self-driving cars are still in the experimental stage but came at a time when Uber and its competitors have expanded the testing of such cars in the US. These companies claim the autonomous cars are safer than ordinary cars because unlike humans they do not get distracted when driving. But the technology behind such cars is only about a decade-old and has only started to experience the unpredictable situations that human drivers face.  

It remains to be seen if the accident will force these companies or state authorities to delay the rollout of self-driving cars on public roads.