News Risk Management21 Mar 2018

Autonomous car industry sees its first fatality

21 Mar 2018

An autonomous vehicle operated by Uber hit and killed a woman in Arizona, USA, on Monday. This is believed to be the first pedestrian death from a self-driving vehicle, reported the New York Times.

Uber said it would suspend North American tests of its self-driving vehicles, which are currently ongoing in Arizona, Pittsburg and Toronto.

Robot cars, when fully developed, are expected to reduce the number of accidents and have a wide variety of applications for businesses. Monday’s accident however, highlighted the risks of self-driving technology and the long way to go before it is able to instill confidence in the public as it operates in a world with real people.

The victim was a 49- year-old woman who was walking her bicycle outside the crosswalk on a four-lane road in a Phoenix, Arizona suburb when she was struck by the Uber vehicle traveling at about 65 km per hour, according to police. The car was in autonomous mode with an operator behind the wheel.

In the US, much of self-driving technology testing has taken place in a piecemeal regulatory environment, noted the New York Times. Some states, like Arizona, have taken a lenient approach to regulation in order to attract testing operations from transportation companies like Uber, Waymo and Lyft from hotspots like California, the seedbed of many new technologies. In California, testing without a backup driver is just weeks away from being permitted.

Since late last year, Waymo, the self-driving car unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet, has been testing cars without a human in the driver's seat to pick up and drop off passengers in Arizona, reported the New York Times. While a lot of testing involves a backup driver in the front seat to take over if something goes wrong, it can be challenging, however, to take control of a fast-moving vehicle.

Between December 2016 and November 2017, Waymo’s self-driving cars drove about 563,270 km and human drivers retook the wheel 63 times--ie "disengagements" where they were forced to take over autonomous functions that failed. This works out to an average of about 9,000 km between every disengagement. 

One key challenge of researchers working on self-driving technology is how to teach systems to adapt to unpredictable driving behaviour from its real, human counterparts. Still, the common view among them is that autonomous vehicles will ultimately be safer than humans.

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