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5 Things to Know About the Recent Uber Autonomous Vehicle Fatality

On March 18, 2018, a 49-year-old woman was killed after being struck by one of Uber’s autonomous vehicles in Tempe, Arizona. Around 10:00 p.m. that evening, the victim was crossing the street when she was struck by an Uber autonomous vehicle traveling approximately 40 miles per hour. This tragic accident has received heavy media coverage as a story of major public interest. Autonomous and self-driving vehicles have surged in popularity recently, with some of the biggest tech companies in the world investing heavily in the technology.

As more information continues to be released, here are 5 things to know at this time:

1. The accident happened with a human operator sitting inside Uber’s self-driving car. It is common for companies testing self-driving vehicles to utilize “test operators” to remain inside the vehicle. Their roles include monitoring the road and being able to grab the wheel, apply the brakes, or take other corrective action when necessary. Video footage of the inside of the Uber car showed the operator, a 44-year-old man, appearing to look at something else inside the car when the accident happened, instead of being focused on the road ahead at all times.

2. The Governor of Arizona has suspended Uber’s self-driving program in the state. Uber had been testing its self-driving vehicles in Arizona since 2016, primarily due to what many have described as lenient testing laws compared to other states. On March 26, 2018, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey sent Uber a letter directing the Arizona Department of Transportation to suspend Uber from testing autonomous vehicles on Arizona public roadways. The letter referred to this fatal accident as “disturbing and alarming,” as well as an “unquestionable failure” of public safety. The letter did not specify a time frame within which Uber may resume testing in Arizona, so it appears to be an indefinite suspension pending the release of more information.

3. In wake of this accident, Uber announced it will not renew its permit to test self-driving vehicles in California. Uber’s permit with the California Department of Motor Vehicles was set to expire on March 31, 2018, but the company announced it will not seek to renew the permit. In a statement, Uber conceded they decided not to reapply for a permit “with the understanding that [their] self-driving vehicles would not operate on public roads in the immediate future.”

4. Reports suggest Uber had been experiencing problems with its autonomous vehicle technology before this fatal accident. Specifically, its self-driving cars were alleged to have trouble navigating construction zones and driving next to bigger vehicles such as 18-wheelers and semi-trucks. Further, the human operators in these vehicles reportedly had to intervene in the driving process at a higher rate than other self-driving companies, such as Google. An investigation conducted by the New York Times indicated Uber vehicles had trouble meeting its target of traveling 13 miles without a human operator having to intervene. In comparison, Google said its self-driving vehicles were averaging nearly 5,600 miles without a human having to intervene.

5. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is conducting a thorough investigation. The NTSB frequently looks into significant accidents and crashes of public interest in order to identify what happened, look for safety issues, and find ways to improve for the future. For this crash, investigators will look into the operating condition of the vehicle involved, driver interaction with that vehicle, and how the vehicle was able to detect the pedestrian that was killed. They will speak with Uber officials and local law enforcement, review video footage, analyze Uber’s technology, and inspect the vehicle.

Self-driving technology has captured the imagination of some of America’s greatest innovators. While efforts to invest in this technology won’t completely go away, it appears they may be put on hold, at least with some participants. A takeaway from this tragic accident is no matter how exciting new technology may be, it is always of utmost importance to keep public safety in mind. If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident with any motor vehicle, including an Uber vehicle, call Nahon, Saharovich & Trotz at 800-529-4004 or complete our online form for a free consultation with a personal injury attorney.