SUV crash in Ariz. halts test­ing of Uber’s self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles

In­ci­dent high­lights chal­lenge of in­ter­act­ing with other mo­torists

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY STEVEN OVERLY steven.overly@wash­ More at wash­ing­ton­ news/in­no­va­tions

Uber has taken its fleet of self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles off the roads while it in­ves­ti­gates a Fri­day night crash that left one of its SUVs sit­ting on its side.

Po­lice in Tempe, Ariz., were called to a crash just be­fore 6:30 p.m. Fri­day to find that the Uber SUV had been hit when an­other ve­hi­cle failed to yield, ac­cord­ing to the Tempe Po­lice Depart­ment. No se­ri­ous in­juries were re­ported.

The in­ci­dent raises more ques­tions about the safety of au­ton­o­mous driv­ing tech­nol­ogy and how it will in­ter­act with other driv­ers on the road.

There was a per­son be­hind the wheel at the time of Fri­day’s crash, but an Uber spokes­woman said the ve­hi­cle was in self­driv­ing mode and that there were no back-seat riders. The com­pany’s self-driv­ing fleet has been taken off the roads in Ari­zona pend­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The com­pany also sus­pended test ve­hi­cles in Pitts­burgh and San Fran­cisco.

The crash comes as Uber grap­ples with a wide range of crises. Among them, sev­eral Uber em­ploy­ees have been ac­cused of steal­ing in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty from Waymo, Google’s self­driv­ing car com­pany, and us­ing it as the ba­sis for Uber’s self­driv­ing tech­nol­ogy. The out­come of that le­gal fight could af­fect Uber’s fu­ture sig­nif­i­cantly.

The crash will prob­a­bly raise ques­tions about the safety of au­ton­o­mous driv­ing tech­nol­ogy as it plays a more prom­i­nent role on U.S. roads. Au­to­mo­bile and tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies alike are dump­ing bil­lions of dol­lars into the tech­nol­ogy with the idea that one day our cars will no longer need hu­man pi­lots.

But that fu­ture is still far off. Mean­while, ve­hi­cles equipped with self-driv­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties will share the road with hu­man mo­torists. That will put au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles in sit­u­a­tions that may seem sim­ple but are ac­tu­ally dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate, such as what to do when an­other ve­hi­cle honks its horn.

It also re­mains un­clear to what ex­tent self-driv­ing cars will be reg­u­lated by fed­eral and state gov­ern­ments. Last year, the Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment re­leased a pol­icy pa­per out­lin­ing 15 guide­lines for de­vel­op­ers of self­driv­ing cars. In states across the coun­try, leg­is­la­tors are de­bat­ing how to al­low the ve­hi­cles to be tested on func­tion­ing streets with­out en­dan­ger­ing pas­sen­gers and other driv­ers.

It’s a push and pull be­tween free­wheel­ing in­no­va­tion and reg­u­la­tory over­sight that many new tech­nolo­gies en­dure, but the stakes may be height­ened when lives are at stake. In­deed, law­mak­ers on Capi­tol Hill have al­ready be­gun de­bate about pub­lic tol­er­ance for in­juries and deaths as a re­sult of self-driv­ing cars.

More than 35,000 peo­ple in the United States were killed in mo­tor ve­hi­cle in­ci­dents in 2015, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion. The ma­jor­ity of those are the re­sult of hu­man er­ror, and tech­nol­ogy en­thu­si­asts think that num­ber will be re­duced sig­nif­i­cantly as more self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles get on the road.

In­dus­try ob­servers ex­pect that me­dia cov­er­age of and of­fi­cials’ re­sponse to crashes in­volv­ing self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles will shape pub­lic per­cep­tion of their safety. A fa­tal car col­li­sion in­volv­ing a Tesla Model S re­ceived wide­spread at­ten­tion be­cause the ve­hi­cle was in au­topi­lot mode at the time, though a gov­ern­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion later found there were no de­fects in the soft­ware.

Ari­zona is one of a grow­ing num­ber of states that al­low self­driv­ing ve­hi­cles to be tested on pub­lic roads. Its per­mit­ting re­quire­ments are also more le­nient than in neigh­bor­ing Cal­i­for­nia, which pre­vi­ously barred Uber from its roads for fail­ing to ob­tain the proper per­mits. The com­pany has cars on the road in San Fran­cisco, but the ve­hi­cles do not pick up pas­sen­gers, ac­cord­ing to CNET.

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