Self-driving car involved in first fatal collision

12.09 | 20 March 2018 | | 16 comments

Image: Rex/Flickr

Uber has announced it is suspending self-driving car tests in all North American cities following a fatal collision at the weekend.

According to BBC News, a 49-year-old woman was hit by a car and killed as she crossed the street in Tempe, Arizona.

The car was in autonomous mode, with a human ‘monitor’ behind the wheel. Police say the woman, Elaine Herzberg, had not been using a pedestrian crossing.

While self-driving cars have been involved in multiple collisions, it is thought to be the first time the technology has been been the cause of a fatality.

Dara Khosrowshahi said the death was ‘incredibly sad news’, while Anthony Foxx, who served as US secretary of transportation under Barack Obama, described it as a ‘wake up call to the entire [autonomous vehicle] industry and government to put a high priority on safety’.

In the US, a number of companies including Ford, General Motors, Tesla and Waymo are investing heavily in research to develop self-driving cars. More than a dozen states allow autonomous vehicles on the roads to some degree.

Uber started testing driverless cars in Pittsburgh in 2016 and has also been testing them in San Francisco, Toronto and the Phoenix area, which includes Tempe.

The death comes a year after Uber took its self-driving cars off the road following an accident that left a Volvo SUV on its side in Arizona. The programme was later reinstated.

The UK Government has repeatedly stated its intent to be at the forefront of developing driverless technology.

Earlier this month, it commissioned a review to look at how current laws will need to be adjusted to reflect the fact self-driving vehicles of the future will not have a ‘driver’ – while also considering some of the criminal offences involved.

Driverless cars could also be tested on UK roads for the first time in 2018 – as a result of new regulations set out in the November 2017 budget. Further to that, small convoys of ‘partially driverless lorries’ will undergo trials on British roads by the end of 2018.


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    I think I’ve said before, but autonomous vehicles can only be as good as those who develop and programme them – how do we know for instance, that the programmers of this particular vehicle were not particularly adept at ‘looking ahead, thinking and anticipating’ as Nigel has said, and which would have prevented this particular incident? It shouldn’t be overlooked that many a human driver would NOT have collided with this lady. This whole business is shameful,

    Hugh Jones
    Agree (2) | Disagree (2)

    The thing about autonomous, or partly-autonomous vehicles is that they can only respond to an immediately obvious situation, but can not look ahead, think and anticipate.
    In context, I have recently had a couple of situations (one a car door opening and today a young cyclist about to follow another across the road in front) where forward observation, anticipation and a judicious toot on the horn resolved the situation and turned potential conflict situations into safe ones. In the latter, the front wheel was in my path and I still had to come to a standstill whilst the rider, astride the bike, awkwardly manoeuvred it out of the way. There is no way that autonomous vehicles, at their best, would have resolved these situations in advance, and probably not at all – both of which could have resulted in contact.
    And if ever the day should come when AI in vehicles reaches that level of observation and anticipation then that is probably the time that the human race also becomes redundant.

    The other also very recent experience was as passenger in an electric car fitted with an auto braking system, where the following distance to could be set. Because the driver was confident of the car’s reaction being faster than his own the following distance was about 1-1.5 seconds. Unless the system could defy the laws of physics there was no way that if things very suddenly went pear-shaped ahead the vehicle would stop in time. The other by product, as in coming up behind a tailback, was the driver relying more on the auto braking system, which resulted in late and somewhat disconcerting braking, whilst simultaneously being physically uncomfortable to experience. Not very pleasant and also, not a smooth comfortable and re-assuring ride. And to my mind that driver was more vulnerable to crashes because of these systems. I won’t be riding with him again.
    Of course, there may come a time when you have fully autonomous interactive systems which, at least as far as vehicle to vehicle is concerned, would be totally safe and presumably smooth! That does not suggest intelligence but more in the manner of today’s aircraft proximity warning systems. That still might not account for the wayward pedestrian.

    Therefore, as things are at this moment, I remain much more comfortable, and feeling more in control, in my own vehicle which just has ABS and if that kicks-in then I got it wrong in the first place. And the moral of this story? There is currently no substitute for fully engaging brain and using the Mk1 eyeball. I will stay with that and let the scientists and geeks get excited about all the gizmos they are adding to vehicles and deluding the public into thinking they are safer on the roads because of them. At best they are damage limitation or avoidance devices but they are not situational anticipation devices.

    Nigel ALBRIGHT
    Agree (5) | Disagree (4)

    The circumstances of this incident in Arizona would suggest that they’re not in fact safe in any part of the world anyway Keith.

    Hugh Jones
    Agree (2) | Disagree (6)

    Hugh, I never said it would be a reason for abandoning them. But I would suggest its rather naive to not consider this as an impact of public use of autonomous vehicles. The public will be expected to get in to vehicles where they have no control over any aspect of their own safety and security.

    Once again some who comment on this forum only seem to focus on perhaps the UK and seem to forget that there are people who use vehicles in other less safe regions of the world. Or do they only consider the UK when it comes to this technology.

    Agree (0) | Disagree (1)

    Of all the possible flaws of autonomous vehicles Keith, this seems an odd and unlikely scenario to focus on. If the scheme is abandoned, I don’t think this would be the main reason.

    Perhaps they could be equipped with James Bond type gadgetry – although I dread to think of the consequences if it’s as unreliable as their apparently non-existent pedestrian avoidance capabilities.

    Hugh Jones
    Agree (1) | Disagree (1)

    Hugh, they have to develop it so that such hijackers don’t get hurt.

    I would put money on it that this will be a major issue globally for autonomous vehicle occupants.

    There are already areas in the UK that global delivery companies will not drive. Autonomous vehicles will make this worse.

    Agree (2) | Disagree (1)

    New update: video footage of the incident from the Uber vehicle’s dash cam is on the BBC News website. Apart from anything else, it shows what happens when you don’t keep your eyes on the road.

    Hugh Jones
    Agree (0) | Disagree (1)

    Based on this incident Keith, they will probably get run over.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t these ‘hi-jacks’ happen now anyway, with non-autonomous vehicle?

    Hugh Jones
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    One of the biggest issues that they will never address with autonomous vehicles is the ease at which the pedestrian can stop and if they wish mug the occupants of the vehicles.

    If autonomous vehicles will avoid and protect pedestrians then it will be very easy for groups of individuals to control them where and when they wish to.

    No great technical expertise or equipment needed. Simply walk in to their path on a quiet road at night another blocks the rear while others break the windows and takes what they want.

    The criminal fraternity are very adept at adapting to change and they will jump at this with relish.

    Agree (6) | Disagree (4)

    Some time ago I read an investigative paper that stated that Mercedes were designing a similar car and had decided that in the event of it possibly hitting a pedestrian or the possibility of injuring its passengers then the manufacturers decide that hitting the pedestrian outside the car was more logical and maybe less costly than having its passengers injured. I can only suppose that hitting a bus queue would count the same?

    I think that says it all.

    Bob Craven
    Agree (4) | Disagree (4)

    Update: have just read that according to the local Police, the vehicle was doing 40mph in a 35 zone, did not slow down before it hit the pedestrian ..oh and there was a ‘test driver’ behind the wheel. If that isn’t enough to put a stop to it all, I don’t know what will.

    Hugh Jones
    Agree (4) | Disagree (10)

    The point I was making Peter, is that it is possible for an alert human driver to avoid pedstrians who step out into their path, whereas – based on this incident at least – it is apparent that an autonomous vehicle can’t – I presume their technology does not have the ability to anticipate, or read human behaviour as humans can?

    Hugh Jones
    Agree (1) | Disagree (5)


    The point of carrying on is because in time they will hopefully prove far better than humans. If they are not better then yes I agree then we should not implement.

    Back to physics – of course you could programme a self drive car to expect any of the few hundred peds on a footway to step out, but to do so would fail the economic objectives as the vehicles would have to travel far too slowly to achieve a braking stop. Life is about balance and we cannot reasonably design to the extremes of events in my view.

    Peter W
    Agree (7) | Disagree (3)

    Well Peter, if an autonomous car can’t avoid a pedestrian where a human driver might have – through observation, anticipation and being ‘on alert’ and therefore not having to defy the laws of physics – what’s the point in carrying on with them?

    Hugh Jones
    Agree (7) | Disagree (14)

    I wonder how many collisions it will take before the penny drops?

    Hugh Jones
    Agree (5) | Disagree (12)

    Interesting that your article (possibly copying from other articles?) says: “it is thought to be the first time the technology has been the cause of a fatality.”

    First point is that the vast majority of all collisions are multi-factored and don’t have a single “cause”.

    Second point – until there is root cause analysis of this incident, any commentary is pure speculation.

    Third point – not even a self driving car can defy the laws of physics and stop on a sixpence. Crashes of this type may reduce but may never be eradicated.

    Peter W
    Agree (15) | Disagree (0)

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