Uber’s first fatal crash raises alarm on self-driving

Uber has paused its self-driving operations in four US cities – Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto – after a fatal crash involving a self-driving Uber vehicle in Tempe, Arizona.

The victim is believed to be the first pedestrian killed by a fully autonomous vehicle. In a case of unexpected events, the Uber vehicle was a test car with a backup driver behind the wheel. According to the local police, the autonomous car showed no signs of slowing before the crash.

This is Uber’s second high profile accident since the introduction of the self-driving technology. In March 2017, an autonomous car operated by the company collided with another vehicle in Tempe, the same city in Arizona where Sunday’s accident happened.

Uber said they would "fully cooperate" with local authorities in the investigation. In response, the company halted all self-driving vehicles testing in Tempe, San Francisco, Toronto, and Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, the fatal crash has raised the alarm of the safety and reliability of the self-driving technology.

Ever since the early development stage, advocates believe autonomous vehicles are a safer option as the technology eliminates the factor of easily distracted humans who may be too drunk or too tired to drive.

Companies such as Uber, Google and General Motors have been investing enormous amount of money and time in testing self-driving cars. However, much of the testing has been conducted on highways. Having fewer intersections and pedestrians compared to the busy streets in the city means easier navigation of self-driving cars.

Recent years, tech companies have started to expand their testing areas to urban and suburban areas. The deadly tragedy, however, was a wake-up call that the technology still has a long way to go before it is safe for every road user.

Earlier this year, the Uber CEO optimistically estimated that genuine autonomous cars would be available for personal use some time around 2019. The plan is now facing even bigger challenge as lawmakers and potential customers are very likely to thoroughly scrutinise the entire technology closely in every sense. "It will set consumer confidence in the technology back years if not decades," Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington-based advocacy group, said.

The police investigation is still active, and the National Transportation Safety Board also tweeted Monday that they will be sending investigators to Tempe.

Governor Doug Ducey’s office released the following statement on the incident:

We are aware of the accident. Our prayers are with the victim, and our hearts go out to her family. Our office is in communication with law enforcement. Public safety is our top priority, and the Governor’s latest Executive Order provides enhanced enforcement measures and clarity on responsibility in these accidents.

Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell tweeted the following statement:

Arizona was declared in 2015 a regulation-free zone to attract testing operations from companies like Uber and Waymo. The new (or lack of) regulations, however, are now under fire for perpetuating potential risk to the public. So far, it’s unclear if the Uber incident will alter other mobility firms’ testing plans in the country.