Driverless car technology yesterday suffered what may prove a significant setback when a female pedestrian was hit, and later died of her injuries in the town Tempe, Arizona. The vehicle involved belonged to Uber and was currently in ‘autonomous’ mode with a human driver also present, whose role is to take control in the case of an emergency. The victim of the accident was walking on the road outside of a pedestrian crossing at the time of the incident. The woman, named as 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, died in hospital.
Uber released a statement to the effect that it was “fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident” and that “our hearts go out to the victim’s family”. Regardless of the subsequent findings of the investigation into the circumstances leading up to the tragic accident, it is certain to have a negative impact on public and possible also lawmakers’ perception of autonomous vehicles.
There is hard logic to the argument that removing human error from driving will result in fewer, not more, accidents on the road. However, the greatest barrier to the how quickly the latest technology in the world of autonomous vehicles will lead to full legal approval was always going to be the psychological barrier of society feeling comfortable with the development. Tragic incidents such as yesterdays during the testing phase will only reinforce public concerns.
Uber’s self-driving car testing, which began in California in 2016 and now covers several states, has already seen controversy. Its vehicles being caught on camera driving through red lights resulted in a major dispute between the San Francisco-based tech company and state regulators. Uber has encountered a series of public relations scandals in recent years and the company saw its London license revoked last September on the grounds of a ‘lack of corporate responsibility’.
The loss of life that resulted from yesterday’s accident is undoubtedly tragic. However, it is unlikely to lead to a wavering in the belief that the introduction of driverless car technology will ultimately save many lives. Road deaths are the fifth highest cause of human mortality in the world. The USA has a particularly bad record and ranks 41st of 52 high-income countries for road traffic deaths. There were 5,997 pedestrian fatalities in the US over 2016, an average of 16 a day. Most of the wealthy nations that rank below the USA in road traffic safety are Middle East states including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Uber has suspended testing of autonomous vehicles in Tempe, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto pending the results of the investigation, However, the hope is still that autonomous vehicle technology will lead to hundreds of thousands of few road accidents every year. Hopefully the consequence will be that when it was discovered what went wrong and if something could and should have been done to prevent the accident, this one tragic death will mean many more can be avoided.