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Uber self-driving crash resulting in death of pedestrian raises safety questions

Published: Updated:

Video of a fatal pedestrian crash involving a self-driving Uber vehicle that some experts say exposes flaws in autonomous vehicle technology is prompting calls to slow down testing on public roads and renewing concerns about regulatory readiness.

The 22-second video shows a woman walking from a darkened area onto a street just before an Uber SUV in self-driving mode strikes her. It was released by police in Tempe, Arizona, following the crash earlier this week.

Japanese automaker Toyota said Thursday it was suspending tests of its self-driving cars so staff could “emotionally process” after an autonomous Uber car killed a pedestrian in an accident.

“We cannot speculate on the cause of the incident or what it may mean to the automated driving industry going forward,” Toyota said in a statement issued via the US company that conducts its autonomous vehicle research TRI.

Toyota said it would continue its tests of semi-autonomous cars on closed circuits.

But all testing of autonomous cars on public roads, which was previously being conducted in Japan and the US states of California and Michigan, is on hold.

-With AFP

Three experts who study the emerging technology concluded the video, which includes dashcam footage of the driver’s reaction, indicates the vehicle’s sensors should have spotted the pedestrian and that it should have initiated braking to avoid the crash that killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg on Sunday night.

It was the first fatality of a self-driving vehicle, and Uber has suspended its testing as the investigation proceeds.

What went wrong

Raj Rajkumar, who heads the autonomous vehicle program at Carnegie Mellon University, said the video was revealing in multiple ways, including that the driver appeared distracted and that Herzberg appeared to have been in the roadway and moving for several seconds and still her presence wasn’t sensed.

Laser systems used in the vehicles, called Lidar, can carry a blind spot, he said.

“All of this should be looked at in excruciating detail,” he said.

Herzberg’s death occurs at time when eagerness to put autonomous vehicles on public roads is accelerating in Silicon Valley, the auto industry and state and federal governments.

More than 100 auto manufacturers and industry associations in early March sent a letter urging Congress to expedite passage of a proposal from Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, that aims to provide regulatory oversight and make it easier to deploy the technology.

After the crash, groups like Vision Zero, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and other safety-minded organizations urged the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to pause consideration of Thune’s proposal until the Tempe crash investigation is completed.

“The stage is now set for what will essentially be beta-testing on public roads with families as unwitting crash test dummies,” the letter said.