Uber pulled its test fleet of self-driving cars off public roads in Toronto and other cities after one of the vehicles hit and killed a woman in Arizona, the first pedestrian fatality attributed to this emerging technology.
Police in Tempe, a suburb of Phoenix, said the 49-year-old woman was hit Sunday night by a vehicle that had a human attendant aboard but was operating in autonomous mode. Uber issued a statement saying "our hearts go out to the victim's family."
In the transportation industry, such a death was widely considered inevitable as the number of self-driving vehicles multiplied, but it still sparked shock waves.
"One of the problems … is that there are too many people who are overhyping the technology," said Barrie Kirk, executive director of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence near Ottawa. "All hardware, all software, fails occasionally."
Mr. Kirk said autonomous vehicle (AV) technology will be safer than human drivers, but not perfect, and warned that pitching it as a way to eliminate all road fatalities was a mistake. If expectations were not tempered, he has repeatedly warned, "all hell will break loose" at the first fatality.
That is roughly what happened when news emerged of the Arizona death. The story exploded onto the internet Monday afternoon, quickly becoming one of the day's most-read and sparking an outpouring of opinion by politicians, transportation experts and safety advocates.
Fallout from the crash "will likely prove negative for all auto makers and suppliers with aspirations in autonomous driving," Buckingham Research Group analyst Glenn Chin wrote in a client note reported by Reuters. "A human fatality is likely to spur increased public and regulatory scrutiny of AVs around a process that is admittedly quite lax in the U.S."
Transportation scholar David Levinson, a professor at the University of Sydney in Australia, noted that Uber's AV fatality rate is worse than that of human drivers. Uber has had one death in approximately one million vehicle miles travelled by its autonomous vehicles, he said, while humans average 1.25 deaths per 100 million miles.
"But mistakes are how people and systems learn, and someone was going to be first," he wrote on his website. "… Hopefully the developers learn something and this type of crash is rare."
The Arizona collision happened on a road with seven driving lanes and two bicycle lanes. The speed limit there is 35 miles an hour, the equivalent of 55 kilometres an hour. Police revealed the directions the car and pedestrian were moving but released little other information about the incident, although they did specify that it happened outside a crosswalk. Safety advocates were outraged, noting that choosing this detail to highlight seemed to shift responsibility to the person walking.
"The first non-driver death of the autonomous age and police are already blaming the victim," tweeted Janette Sadik-Khan, the former transportation commissioner of New York. "'Crossing outside of the crosswalk' was never a valid excuse for traffic deaths, and it provides no cover for autonomous mobility companies."
Others voiced concerns about a future in which autonomous vehicles are programmed to expect those on foot to follow the rules perfectly.
"I'm worried that there'll be further expectations on pedestrians to behave in such a way that doesn't impede autonomous vehicles," said Sean Marshall, co-founder of the advocacy group Walk Toronto.
Uber said they are co-operating with the investigation and are halting testing operations on the public roads of four cities, including the two vehicles it had been operating in Toronto.
Last year, Uber began a small deployment of autonomous vehicles in Toronto. They were not carrying passengers, but were doing testing and mapping of city roads.
The company was one of a number approved for on-road testing under a pilot program launched in 2016 by the Ontario government. One condition of the provincial approval is that vehicles must have a driver in the car to take over when needed.
Although a person in the Uber was not enough to prevent the Tempe death, a spokesman for the Ontario Transportation Minister said it is too early to consider tightening the regulations.
"We will be following the situation in Arizona closely, and will consider what measures are appropriate as more becomes known," Celso Pereira said.