- The Washington Times
Monday, March 19, 2018

A driverless Uber car struck and killed a pedestrian Sunday night in Arizona, the first fatality of its kind in what analysts said is a serious blow to plans for a broader autonomous vehicle service.

Uber quickly suspended driverless car trials in Pittsburgh, Toronto, San Francisco and Phoenix in the wake of the crash, which police said occurred about 10 p.m. in Tempe.

The victim, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, was walking outside a crosswalk when she was struck, according to police. Investigators said an Uber operator was in the car, which was in autonomous driving mode at the time.

“It’s a huge step back for them,” said Troy Spracklin, founder and chief executive of eBrake Technologies, a Canadian company whose app locks a user’s cellphone to prevent distracted driving.

Mr. Spracklin noted that he had no specific knowledge about the Tempe accident but said it was likely to cast a pall over the race to introduce autonomous vehicle technology to the marketplace.

“This tells us that perhaps the system hasn’t been properly vetted and isn’t ready for prime time,” he said.

Uber said it is cooperating in the police investigation.

“Some incredibly sad news out of Arizona. We’re thinking of the victim’s family as we work with local law enforcement to understand what happened,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said on Twitter.

In addition to Uber, companies such as General Motors and Google’s parent, Alphabet Inc., are spending heavily on technology to enable cars to drive themselves. Transportation specialists and urban planners see the technology as a revolution in the auto industry and traffic, with potentially billions of dollars at stake for those who successfully develop it.

Last month, Uber settled a lawsuit with Waymo, Alphabet’s driverless car branch, over what it said was theft of trade secrets. The lawsuit charged Otto, a startup Uber bought in 2016, with stealing business and technology ideas after it hired a former Waymo executive. The settlement was reportedly in the neighborhood of $250 million.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it was deploying a team to Tempe to investigate. Although the agency does not keep statistics on how many single-fatality incidents it investigates — not to mention those involving pedestrians — a spokesman said it was rare.

“The investigation will address the vehicle’s interaction with the environment, other vehicles and vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and bicyclists,” the agency said in a statement, adding that the accident rose to the level of a federal investigation because it could shed light on a critical safety issue.

The team will look at “vehicle factors, human performance and electronic recorders,” the agency said.

Ms. Herzberg, who police said was not a Tempe resident, was taken to a hospital, where she died as a result of her injuries.

The intersection, where multiple-lane roads meet, is broad. Locals said it generally has minimal foot traffic. The Marquee Theater, a live music venue, is on a corner, but it did not have a big show Sunday because it was hosting a festival some 20 miles from the intersection, according to workers.

The tragic mishap is a setback for Mr. Khosrowshahi as he tries to lead Uber out of a rough patch. He took the helm of the ride-hailing company after founder and chief executive Travis Kalanick resigned last summer over reports that Uber’s corporate environment tolerated rampant sexual harassment and unscrupulous business practices.

Mr. Khosrowshahi has been a major supporter of autonomous cars. He predicted just months ago that the company would move beyond the test stage within two years and deploy the cars without backup drivers on board.

Uber first tested the cars in Pittsburgh in 2016. It also tried to test them in San Francisco but got into a fight with state officials, who said the company refused to go through the registration for autonomous vehicles.

Instead, the gray Volvos were shipped in December 2016 to Tempe, where Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey was waiting to greet them. He predicted they would increase highway safety.

“Arizona welcomes Uber self-driving cars with open arms and wide-open roads,” Mr. Ducey said at the time. He took the inaugural ride in the cars.

The Pittsburgh and Tempe tests were briefly suspended last March after a self-driving Uber flipped onto its side after a crash in Tempe. The Uber car was determined not to be at fault in that accident.

While Ms. Herzberg appears to be the first pedestrian killed by an autonomous vehicle, the accident not the first fatality connected to them.

In May 2016, a man was killed while riding in a Tesla operating in “autopilot” mode when the car collided with a truck in Florida.

An NTSB investigation of the crash said the driver ignored a number of warnings from the car but added that the vehicle’s design allowed the driver to remain in autopilot despite the alerts.

Tesla issued an update to its system to make it harder for drivers to ignore warnings.

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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