The debate surrounding the integration of self-driving cars onto public roads has been fierce, but so far trending towards allowing it to happen. The thinking tends to be that self-driving cars are inevitable, and the only way to usher that transition forward is to allow them on public roads. That initiative may have taken a step back now that one of Uber’s self-driving cars was involved in a fatal accident.
A woman was recently struck and killed by a Volvo XC90 sports utility vehicle that was operating using Uber’s autonomous vehicle mode, in Tempe, Arizona. This is believed to be the first pedestrian death directly tied to autonomous vehicle technology.
The car was going approximately 40 miles an hour on a street with a speed limit of 45 miles per hour when it struck the pedestrian who was crossing the street with her bicycle. It is worth noting that the vehicle did have a safety driver in the driver’s seat, but video shows that the safety driver was distracted and not paying attention to the road.
In theory, Uber’s autonomous technology should have prevented this crash. Like many self-driving vehicles, this Volvo was equipped with lidar (light detection and ranging systems) technology. These sensors are designed to detect objects from hundreds of feet away, even at night. Clearly, there are still problems to be worked out.
Of course, Uber is not the only company working on perfecting autonomous driving. The head of Alphabet Inc’s (Google’s parent company) autonomous driving Unit, Waymo, has come out strong against Uber, claiming that their company’s technology would have avoided an accident like this.
Waymo CEO John Krafcik spoke to a group of auto dealers at a gathering of the National Automobile Dealers Association in Las Vegas recently, saying that “At Waymo, we have a lot of confidence that our technology would be able to handle a situation like that”.
Whether Waymo is correct or not, the reality is self-driving cars are not going anywhere anytime soon. All we can do is hope that more accidents are not needed for this tech to get the point that we need. One thing is for sure, as self-driving cars become more prevalent on public roadways, auto-insurance is going to have to adapt too.