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Uber self-driving car kills pedestrian in Arizona

An Uber vehicle in autonomous driving mode hit and killed a woman while she was crossing the street in Tempe, Arizona, USA. This is believed to be the first confirmed pedestrian death caused by a fully self-driving vehicle.

The woman, Elaine Herzberg, 49, was reportedly pushing her bicycle across the road at approximately 10pm local time on Sunday night in Tempe, a small suburban town 11 miles from Phoenix, Arizona, when she was struck by the robot car. The Uber vehicle was in fully autonomous mode, although there was also a human operator behind the steering wheel at the time of the accident. The reactions of the human 'driver' in the Uber vehicle at the time of the accident are not yet known.

"The vehicle was traveling northbound... when a female walking outside of the crosswalk crossed the road from west to east when she was struck by the Uber vehicle," local police said in a statement.

Herzberg sustained fatal injuries in the collision and died from her injuries later in hospital, police confirmed.

Local TV footage of the accident scene showed Herzberg's crumpled bicycle and the Uber Volvo XC90 SUV with significant damage to the front of the vehicle. Uber has been using special versions of the XC90 SUV for its autonomous road trials, although a Volvo spokesman was quick to stress that the autonomous technology used in the vehicle at the time of the accident was not made by Volvo.

Uber responded to the tragedy by immediately suspending all North American testing of its self-driving cars. Other companies currently testing self-driving cars on US roads, such as Google spin-off Waymo, have not yet commented on the incident or announced any plans to scale back or suspend their own autonomous vehicle tests.

Arizona recently became the first state in America to approve Waymo's driverless taxi service for commercial operations without a human driver. It is not yet clear if Arizona will suspend this approval, pending further investigation into the Uber incident, but it seems highly likely that in light of the woman's unfortunate death that all autonomous vehicle regulations will be reviewed.

This latest tragedy will be a major setback for the self-driving automotive industry, as while many of the key, core technologies necessary for its success are rapidly converging and maturing, human acceptance of these cars on public roads is still relatively low. The basic question of assured safety has hovered over autonomous vehicles since they were first mooted and incidents such as this Uber death serve only to confirm peoples' worst fears.

Already, there are major concerns and confusion surrounding the law and insurance for self-driving cars, as there is currently no framework yet in place to determine who is to blame if a self-driving car causes an accident or injures humans. Ironically, one of the oft-touted benefits of autonomous vehicles is their theoretically superior safety capabilities.

As recently as last Friday, both Uber and Waymo were urging Congress to pass sweeping legislation that would hasten the introduction of self-driving cars into the United States. Both companies - in a race with each other - see dominating the driverless vehicles space as a major financial oppportunity for the future. The pace of change being demanded to put more driverless vehicles onto public highways by these companies has caused concern and some congressional Democrats had already blocked the legislation over safety concerns even before this fatal accident occurred.

Democratic Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, a member of the transportation committee, said in a statement responding to the Uber crash: "This tragic accident underscores why we need to be exceptionally cautious when testing and deploying autonomous vehicle technologies on public roads".

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have both sent teams to investigate the crash. Canada's transportation ministry in Ontario, where Uber conducts further driverless vehicle road trials, has also confirmed that it will be reviewing the accident.

"Arizona has been the wild west of robot car testing with virtually no regulations in place," said Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit consumer advocacy group, in a statement. "That's why Uber and Waymo test there. When there's no sheriff in town, people get killed.”

Previously, Arizona had opened its arms to companies testing self-driving vehicles as a way to generate economic growth and create more local jobs. Republican Governor Doug Ducey signed an executive order in 2015 allowing for the testing of such vehicles on Arizona streets and explicitly invited Uber to consider the state after Californian regulators had cracked down on the company over its failure to obtain testing permits.

This latest incident is not an isloated case; it is simply the first significant crash that resulted in a pedestrian death. Last year, Uber also suspended its self-driving tests following a crash with another car in Tempe, although the company claimed that a human driver was in charge of the Uber vehicle in that incident. There are hundreds of self-driving cars being tested on US roads and minor bumps with other non-autonomous vehicles are a regular occurence - one of the most recent such Uber incidents occurred last week in Pittsburgh, with no injuries.

By the end of December 2017, Uber had logged over two million self-driving miles (3.2 million km) of road tests, with over 100 autonomous cars on the roads in the greater Phoenix area. Rain, snow and ice are known to be markedly more challenging atmospheric conditions for autonomous cars, whereas Arizona's climate is relatively stable - hot and dry - making it ideal for the first wave of real-world road tests for autonomous vehicles. The company also tests in Pittsburgh and Toronto.

This latest fatality follows the death in July 2016 of Tesla driver Joshua Brown, who died when the sensors of his Model S sports car driving in autopilot mode failed to detect a large white 18-wheel truck and trailer crossing the highway in front of him, set against a backdrop of a wide, pale expanse of sky. The car simply did not 'see' the truck and continued at full speed under the trailer, killing the 40-year-old Tesla driver instantly.

In that instance, although an error in Tesla's Autopilot software contributed to the death of the driver, the crash happened only after the driver ignored repeated warnings from the car to put his hands back on the steering wheel. Tesla emphasised that Autopilot is a driver assistance feature, not a replacement for a human driver. Investigators ultimately cleared Tesla of direct culpability for the accident.

On the other hand, Uber's driverless car software, as used in the Volvo XC90 in Tempe, is designed to facilitate fully autonomous operation and would in theory be the same system intended for use in future by a vehicle with no human driver in attendance. It would appear that Ms Herzberg's tragic death is the first to be caused by a fully autonomous, driverless car.

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