On Sunday, March 21st, Elaine Herzberg was killed while crossing the street with her bike by an oncoming, self-driving Uber. The incident happened in Tempe, Arizona and was the first pedestrian death recorded as a result of self-driving technology. The car, a Volvo XC90 sports utility vehicle outfitted with a sensor system, was in autonomous mode when it struck Herzberg at around 10 pm on Sunday. The human safety driver, Rafael Vasquez, behind the wheel of the car, failed to intervene and stop the vehicle in time and was clearly distracted at the time of the accident. Footage from the exterior and interior view of the vehicle shows the car travelling at 40 mph in a 45 mph speed limit zone but Vasquez did not have her hands hovering over the steering wheel as required to enable her to take control in the emergency.
Like many self-driving cars, Uber equips its vehicles with lidar sensors – an acronym for light detection and ranging systems – to help the car detect the world around it. However, the vehicle was unable to detect the cyclist, beside the fact that the lidar system is supposed to work well in the dark and detect obstructions from hundreds of feet away. This is evidence that self-driving cars are still very much in an experimental phase and governments are still working to regulate the technology, although rules have been put in place in the interim around the USA.
Uber’s self-driving program first started in Pittsburgh in September 2016, and extended to Tempe in February 2017. Arizona city was considered the perfect place to test autonomous vehicles because of the good weather and wide roads. However,Uber has temporarily put a stop to the whole program in Arizona, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto following the accident. The spokesperson for Uber, Matt Kallman released a statement saying: “The video is disturbing and heartbreaking to watch, and our thoughts continue to be with Elaine’s loved ones. Our cars remain grounded, and we're assisting local, state and federal authorities in any way we can.”
This isn't the first death as a result of self-driving technology. In 2016, a man in Florida was killed while at the wheel of a Tesla while using its Autopilot feature, which uses a computer vision-based vehicle detection system that differs from the technology used by Uber. Federal investigators later ruled that the system was not at fault in the crash.
The autonomous technology uses lidar and radar technology, along with computer vision, to help guide the vehicle as it gathers information on objects, their size and the speed at which they are moving. It places objects into categories such as cyclist, pedestrians, cars or objects which dictates how they are likely to behave.