Murphy’s Law says that "anything that can go wrong will go wrong,” and it’s finally caught up with autonomous vehicles. On Sunday night March 17, an autonomous car operated by Uber, including an emergency backup driver behind the wheel, struck and killed a woman on a street in Tempe, Ariz. Hours after the crash, Uber announced the suspension of all tests of its autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Toronto.
This was believed to be the first pedestrian death associated with self-driving technology. The accident reminds us that self-driving technology is still in the experimental stage, and people are still trying to figure out how to regulate it. Uber had a previous accident with an autonomous vehicle, but it was determined the other driver was at fault.
At Anderson Behel, we hope to work on self-driving cars when the time comes, but first I think all of us want to be certain that autonomous vehicles are safe first.
Uber, Waymo (previously Google), and other tech companies and automakers have expanded testing of their self-driving vehicles in various cities around the country. Waymo says cars will be safer than regular cars because they take easily distracted humans out of the driving equation. Although the technology is about a decade old, it’s now starting to experience real-world unpredictable situations that drivers can face.
Testing of autonomous cars has taken place in a small number of vehicles. If these vehicles were mass-produced like other cars are now, how will they be tested? Automakers certainly couldn’t send each vehicle out for a road test. In mass production, testing would have to be no more than a couple of minutes. Complicating the situation is the complexity of these cars that include special sensors and computer control to make them work properly. For example, how could you test a vehicle to avoid hitting a pedestrian at night, like the accident in Tempe?
The Federal government is trying to get involved. A Senate bill would free autonomous-car makers from some existing safety standards and preempt states from creating their own vehicle safety laws. Similar legislation has been passed in the House. The Senate version has passed a committee vote, but hasn’t reached a full floor vote.
“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,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut.
What Exactly Happened?
The Uber car, a Volvo XC90 sport utility vehicle outfitted with the company’s sensing system, was in autonomous mode with a human safety driver at the wheel but carrying no passengers when it struck Elaine Herzberg, a 49-year-old woman, on Sunday around 10 p.m.
A Tempe police spokesman, said that a preliminary investigation showed that the vehicle was moving around 40 miles per hour when it struck Ms. Herzberg, who was walking with her bicycle on the street. He said it did not appear as though the car had slowed down before impact and that the Uber safety driver had shown no signs of impairment. The weather was clear and dry.
Uber’s Volvo XC90 sport utility vehicle, outfitted with the company’s sensing system, was in autonomous mode with a human safety driver at the wheel, but carrying no passengers, when it fatally struck Elaine Herzberg, a 49-year-old woman, in Tempe, Ariz. on March 17.
Tempe, with its dry weather and wide roads, was considered an ideal place to test autonomous vehicles. In 2015, Arizona officials declared the state a regulation-free zone in order to attract testing operations from companies like Uber, Waymo, and Lyft.
The state agreed to testing of autonomous vehicles that had safety drivers at the wheel, ready to take over in an emergency. That mandate was changed to allow testing of unmanned self-driving cars, because a “business-friendly and low regulatory environment” had helped the state’s economy.
In California, where testing without a backup driver was just weeks away from being permitted, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Motor Vehicles, said officials were in the process of gathering more information about the Tempe crash.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a team of four investigators to examine “the vehicle’s interaction with the environment, other vehicles and vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and bicyclists.”
Most testing of driverless cars occurs with a safety driver in the front seat who is available to take over if something goes wrong. However, it’s not easy to take control of a vehicle going 40 mph.
Waymo, which has been testing autonomous vehicles on public roads since 2009 when it was Google’s self-driving car project, has said its cars have driven more than 5 million miles while Uber’s cars have covered 3 million miles. Between December 2016 and November 2017, Waymo’s self-driving cars drove about 350,000 miles and human drivers retook the wheel 63 times. Uber hasn’t been testing its self-driving cars long enough in California to be required to release its disengagement numbers.
Researchers working on autonomous technology have struggled with how to teach the systems to adjust for unpredictable human driving or behavior. Still, most researchers believe self-driving cars will ultimately be safer than their human counterparts. Unfortunately, they can’t suggest a date when this will be the norm.
In another accident in May 2016, the driver of a Tesla using Autopilot, the car company’s self-driving feature, died on a state highway in Florida when his car crashed into a tractor-trailer that was crossing the road. Federal regulators later ruled there were no defects in the system to cause the accident. And, the vehicle was not completely autonomous.
Source: Power Electronics