On March 18, a woman was struck and killed by an Uber self-driving Volvo XC90 with a car GPS tracker device. This happened in Tempe, Arizona. It is the first pedestrian fatality caused by an autonomous vehicle. The incident has sparked an investigation into the readiness of self-driving vehicles.
The vehicle with the tracking device and sensors to function as an autonomous car. At the time of the accident, the vehicle was driving at 40 miles per hour around 10 pm, when it struck Elaine Herzberg, a 49-year old woman who was carrying her bicycle across the road. There was a single person in the vehicle’s driver seat. After the accident, police checked the driver and found him to be not impaired in anyway.
The Tempe Police has released a partial dash cam video of the car accident. The video shows that the driver of the vehicle, identified by police as Rafael Vasquez, was looking down when the accident happened. The video also shows Ms. Herzberg appearing in the camera view right before the accident. It was during the night and the area was pretty dark. But Uber uses light detection and ranging systems (also known as LiDar) which are supposed to function better in darkness and detect objects from hundreds of feet away.
According to Scientific American, self-driving cars rely on combinations of tracking device for cars, light detection and ranging (LiDar) sensors, cameras, and more. The various types of trackers and recognition equipment are intended to help recognize road signs, cars, bicycles, pedestrians and other obstacles. Each equipment has its own strengths and weaknesses. In the Tempe fatal accident all of the trackers and sensors seemed to have failed to notice the pedestrian. A strange thing about self-driving car crashes are that they don’t brake before an accident. The autonomous cars keep moving at the same speed when the sensors don’t detect an object.
Arizona had been one of the friendliest state for self-driving vehicles. It has been very liberal about letting tests run on the streets. Since the accident, Uber has suspended all testing. According to The Verge, Uber had problems with the vehicle even before the fatal crash. The company was aggressively pursuing a goal to provide self-driving ride shares by the end of this year. The fatal crash puts that prospect under jeopardy.
Both Uber and Waymo are competing in the driverless space to take the first place. Waymo is being developed by Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Tesla is also developing a self-driving car feature called autopilot. Tesla’s autopilot technology is more like a driving assistant. Uber and Waymo are competing to create autonomous vehicles with the goal to let the cars drive on their own in the near future. At the moment, unlike Waymo, Uber always has a driver in their self-driving vehicles. This precaution might indicate that Uber’s technology is not as advanced as previously assumed.
Autonomous vehicles have the potential to change the current transportation paradigm. Testing these vehicles on the road is a high-risk endeavor. Unfortunately, without the right system for the right tracking application for and extensive road testing, the technology can’t reach the next level. The self-driving vehicle companies have to invest more time and money to make sure that they become safer.