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Fatal crash could pull plug on autonomous vehicle testing on public roads

Are self-driving cars really ready for the road?
by Paul A. Eisenstein /
Image: A self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh
A self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh on Sept. 12, 2016.Gene J. Puskar / AP file

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A fatal crash in Arizona threatens to become a major setback in the race to make self-driving vehicles an everyday reality.

A pedestrian, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, was struck and killed by an autonomous vehicle operated by ride-sharing service Uber in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe on Sunday night. A number of automakers, ride-sharing services, and tech companies have been testing their self-driving prototypes in Arizona which has put in place fewer restrictions than many other states.

Testing has been rapidly ramping up across the country, despite widespread public skepticism. And the Arizona accident is just the latest example that could be used by critics to try to scuttle proposed federal legislation aimed at putting hundreds of thousands of self-driving vehicles on public roads.

“There should be a national moratorium on all robot car testing on public roads until the complete details of this tragedy are made public and are analyzed by outside experts so we understand what went so terribly wrong," said John Simpson, director of California’s Consumer Watchdog.

Uber, the country’s largest ride-sharing service, immediately announced a moratorium on testing after the latest setback to its self-driving vehicle program. It was forced to briefly halt testing in California, in part due to a tiff with state regulators over permit requirements. But Uber’s heavily modified Volvo XC90s also repeatedly violated traffic ordinances, among other things cutting across bicycle lanes.

In January, a Tesla Model S reportedly operating in semi-autonomous Autopilot mode ran into the back of a fire truck on a suburban Los Angeles freeway. In May 2016, a former Navy SEAL was killed in another Tesla crash. Federal investigators divided blame between the Autopilot system and driver Joshua Brown, who failed to take control of the vehicle when a potential crash was detected.

There have been more than one dozen crashes in California involving vehicles operated by Waymo, the company widely considered a leader in self-driving technology. The Google spin-off claims only one accident was blamed on its vehicles. But critics question the precise number since Arizona has a more lax reporting standard than California. Uber did not respond to questions from NBC News.

Skeptics like Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, are concerned by the Sunday crash because it occurred despite having a trained “operator” seated behind the wheel, supposedly ready to react in the case of an emergency.

But what worries them even more is that Waymo, General Motors, and others aim to start testing fully driverless vehicles that may not even have a steering wheel or pedals for anyone on board to use in an emergency. Waymo recently received permission from Arizona to launch a commercial ride-sharing service with a fully driverless version of the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan. GM wants to launch a similar service with a modified Chevrolet Bolt EV.

But, referring to the fatal crash in Arizona, Sen. Blumenthal said Monday, “This tragic incident makes clear that autonomous vehicle technology has a long way to go before it is truly safe for the passengers, pedestrians, and drivers who share America’s roads.”

It remains to be seen whether other Capitol Hill lawmakers will back off from several proposed measures that would override most state restrictions on autonomous vehicle testing. Though the Senate has yet to act, last September, the House of Representatives, in an unusual, bipartisan move, passed the SELF DRIVE Act.

“With this legislation, innovation can flourish without the heavy hand of government,” said Representative Bob Latta, an Ohio Republican and head of the Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee.

Not all consumer and safety groups oppose wider testing of self-driving vehicles. Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under former President Barack Obama, repeatedly hailed autonomous technology for its potential to all but eliminate highway deaths by preventing the 90-plus percent of fatal crashes blamed on human error.

Cost considerations

The ride-sharing industry has another reason to support the technology. Uber founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick predicted fully driverless vehicles would slash his company’s operating costs to the point where it would be cheaper to hail a ride than own a private vehicle. The Boston Consulting Group last December forecast autonomous vehicles operated by ride-sharing services could account for nearly a quarter of the miles Americans travel on the highway by 2030.

Just last week, Waymo released a video aimed at showing how users of its pilot ride-sharing service relax, even sleep in its vehicles. For now, users have to volunteer and are predisposed to accepting the idea of a vehicle driving itself. But while some studies show consumers growing more comfortable with the concept, there remains strong resistance.

That was underscored in a recent study by Detroit-based consultancy AlixPartners, which concluded, “the two most sobering findings for automakers and their suppliers…is that nearly half of consumers said they don’t currently feel confident in autonomous vehicles' abilities to navigate them safely and, perhaps because of that lack of confidence, 55 percent said they are unlikely to consider purchasing an AV.”

A lot will ride on what investigators determine happened on Sunday night, though a preliminary statement by a Tempe police spokesman indicates the Uber vehicle failed to slow when it approached Herzberg who was walking her bicycle down a center median before unexpectedly stepping out onto the road away from a marked crosswalk.

But even if police ultimately clear the ride-sharing service, the future of autonomous technology could be clouded, it seems, if Uber’s Arizona crash makes potential users and buyers feel even less safe with the idea of letting cars do the driving on their own.

That has led virtually every major automaker to invest in autonomous vehicle research — though a senior Hyundai official suggested Tuesday that the South Korean carmaker will take a more “cautious” approach on its own development program as it waits for the results of an investigation into the weekend fatal crash. No one knows under what situation accidents will occur,” Yoon Sung-hoon, a director at Hyundai, told reporters in Seoul.

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