Uber suspended its autonomous vehicle test program in the U.S. Monday after a woman was struck and killed by one of the company’s test vehicles in Tempe, AZ. The company suspended its test programs in San Francisco, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, and Toronto, according to The Washington Post. It was the first known fatality tied to autonomous vehicle testing in the U.S.
The victim was 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, and she was struck by an Uber vehicle in autonomous mode when she was crossing the road. A driver was behind the wheel of the vehicle—which is required in most testing environments—but the car was in autonomous mode. The Post reported that Tempe police said she was “walking outside of the crosswalk.”
“Our hearts go out to the victim’s family,” Uber said in a statement. “We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident.”
I’m of multiple minds on this issue. On the one hand, true road safety will almost assuredly only be found once 100% of vehicular traffic is AI-controlled. The harsh reality is that the only way to get there is through testing.
As Timothy Carone, an associate teaching professor specializing in autonomous systems at the University of Notre Dame, told The Post:
It’s going to be difficult to accept the deaths … but at some point you’ll start to see the curve bend. The fact is these things will save lives and we need to get there. Hopefully it happens much faster and with a much shorter time scale [than it took with aviation].
On the other hand, Uber has exemplified the rules-are-for-suckers-and-chumps approach to this testing process, rushing to markets like Arizona where they can test without having the filthy fingers of government nannies tell them what to do. When it comes to harsh realities, the truth is that government nannies save lives in just about every major industry.
All the safety precautions we take for granted in agriculture, food, automobiles, aviation, medicine, pharmaceuticals, mining, shipping, trucking, trains, paint (how’s that lack of lead working out for you?), and just about everything else were all developed either at the behest of or in partnership with government regulators.
Surely autonomous vehicles need the same sort of oversight. Personally, I’m hoping this tragic incident leads to federal guidelines and rules governing the development of autonomous vehicle systems.