SUV crash in Ariz. halts testing of Uber’s self-driving vehicles
Incident highlights challenge of interacting with other motorists
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.