Autonomous Car Casualty Proves Fatal for Uber


March, 2018

  • An autonomous Uber car has killed a woman in Arizona, raising fears about the safety of self-driving vehicles
  • Uber is unlikely to be legally at fault, but the company has suspended its self-driving car tests in North America amidst calls for more stringent regulation on autonomous car testing
  • The incident raises important questions about whether autonomous driving technology is ready to be tested on public highways and who is legally at fault when accidents inevitably occur

“All of this raises significant questions about whether autonomous driving technology is truly ready to be tested on public highways and who is legally at fault when accidents inevitably occur.”

On Sunday night, an autonomous Uber car struck and killed a woman crossing the street in Arizona, marking the first pedestrian death associated with self-driving technology.

Elaine Herzberg, 49, was walking her bicycle outside the crosswalk on a four-lane road in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe at around 10pm when she was struck by an Uber vehicle traveling at around 40 miles per hour. The Volvo XC90 SUV was in autonomous mode, and despite there being an operator behind the wheel, the car failed to see Herzberg and stop. Herzberg later died from her injuries in hospital. The incident has brought into question the potential dangers of autonomous cars as self-driving technology is designed to detect pedestrians, cyclists and others in order to prevent crashes. This crash signals that such technology may not be ready for wide-scale public use.

However, Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir stated that such a collision would have been difficult to avoid in any kind of mode, autonomous or human-driven “based on how [Herzberg] came from the shadows right into the roadway”. Moir also stated that it would be unlikely for Uber to be legally at fault for the accident, but didn’t rule out that charges could be filed against the operator of the Uber vehicle, Rafael Vasquez, 44. An investigation will now be submitted to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office for review and for now it is unclear whether any potential charge may follow.

This isn’t the first time there have been safety concerns over autonomous cars, as last year Uber temporarily grounded its self-driving cars for a few days following a crash with another car in Tempe. Before that, in July 2016, concerns over the safety of autonomous vehicles were also raised after the sensors of a Tesla Model S driving in autopilot mode failed to detect a large 18-wheel truck and trailer crossing the highway. Similarly, when Uber first began testing its self-driving cars in California in 2016, the vehicles were caught running red lights, resulting in the company having to pull its pilot programme in San Francisco amidst legal threats from state officials.

Despite the low risk of legal action being taken against Uber, the peer-to-peer ridesharing company has decided to suspend North American tests of its self-driving vehicles in Arizona, Pittsburgh and Toronto, presenting a huge potential blow to the future of autonomous vehicles. Just 3 days before the accident, Uber and Waymo had urged Congress to pass sweeping legislation designed to speed-up the introduction of autonomous cars into the United States, with many Democrats having since blocked the legislation over safety concerns in light of Sunday night’s fatality.

Safety advocates are now also calling for a national moratorium on all robot car testing on public roads, with Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit consumer advocacy group, pushing for stricter regulation on autonomous car testing in the area to avoid further casualties. Since 2016, Arizona has welcomed companies such as Uber testing its autonomous vehicles in order to stimulate economic growth and jobs. As a result, it’s highly likely that regulation could negatively impact the local economy.

Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable, raised similar concerns over autonomous car technology at Warwick Congress’ 2017 conference:


All of this raises significant questions about whether autonomous driving technology is truly ready to be tested on public highways and who is legally at fault when accidents inevitably occur. Unfortunately, regulators have left many questions unanswered as they try to come to grips with autonomous technology and its limitations. Arizona officials have previously stated that the public is adequately protected by basic rules which require a licensed driver somewhere in the driverless car, making them responsible for any accidents. However, in instances where there is no operator in an autonomous car the rules are less clear, as there is very little legislation on the issue. For example, in December, the Californian State Department of Motor Vehicles rejected a General Motors-backed proposal designed to shift liability away from car companies and to the consumer if a self-driving car’s sensors weren’t properly maintained.

Sadly, Sunday’s fatality highlights just how far car companies still have to go in order to solve the many ethical and legal challenges that autonomous cars pose. However, it also creates an interesting opportunity for such companies and regulators to work together to create new legislation and a brighter future for self-driving vehicles. If regulation can be complemented by improving the deployment of self-driving vehicles to fulfill their immense potential in reducing car accidents and reducing their ecological footprint, not only will we see fewer fatal incidents, but more effective transportation technology in place.


Written by Natasha Rega-Jones. Edited by Keval Dattani and Abdi Buwe.

Warwick Congress Blog

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