The fledgling autonomous car industry was dealt a serious setback after a female pedestrian was hit and killed by a driverless sports utility vehicle in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe on Sunday night.
Motor vehicle manufacturers like Ford and Tesla, as well technology companies like Uber and Waymo, have been working hard on self-driving technology in hopes of speeding the introduction of autonomous cars to American roadways, even urging Congress to relax safety regulations so that more testing can be done on public streets and highways. This fatality, believed to be the first pedestrian fatality caused by a driverless vehicle, will no doubt result in more scrutiny on the industry.
Case in point, shortly after the accident, Uber announced it was temporarily removing its autonomous vehicles in Tempe, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Toronto, where they are being tested. We literally just talked about the surge in driverless commercial trucks on America’s roadways. Now, let’s talk about this real-life case study in driverless passenger vehicles.
The Accident in Arizona
The accident reportedly occurred on a Sunday night, March 18th, when a 49-year-old woman was walking her bicycle across the street. It has been reported that she wasn’t in a crosswalk, and that there was a person behind the wheel of the driverless SUV, but it was in autonomous driving mode at the time of the accident. The woman survived the impact, but later died from her injuries at the hospital. Teams from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), as well as the Ministry of Transportation in Canada’s Ontario province, have launched investigations into the accident.
This incident comes nearly two years after the driver of a Tesla in Autopilot mode was killed when his vehicle crashed into a tractor-trailer that turned in front of him. The NTSB investigated the accident, and did not find a defect in Tesla’s Autopilot system, which requires the full attention of its human driver while it is being used.
In early 2018, another Tesla in Autopilot mode crashed into a parked fire truck in Culver City, California, but there were no injuries. (Here’s a previous blog we did about Tesla’s Autopilot and who might be held liable in that kind of accident.)
Some States Have Embraced Driverless Technology Testing
Arizona has been very friendly toward autonomous vehicles. In 2015, Governor Doug Ducey signed an executive order allowing the testing of driverless vehicles on Arizona’s roadways. This came after California regulators shut down Uber’s self-driving car tests after video footage surfaced showing an Uber driverless prototype running a red light in front of a pedestrian. An investigation found that Uber had failed to obtain testing permits in the state.
But attitudes in California have changed. In April of 2018, the state will become the first to allow completely unmanned autonomous vehicles to be tested on public roadways. However, regulations will require the self-driving vehicle to be monitored by a remote operator outside of the vehicle, ready to take over as needed. The remote operator must also have an open line of communication with police in case of an accident.
With all the emphasis on perfecting autonomous vehicle technology, it seems as though the widespread presence of driverless cars on America’s roads is inevitable. But we at the Belleville, Illinois, law offices of Hipskind & McAninch, LLC, hope that lawmakers will see to it that testing of self-driving cars is done with public safety as its foremost priority.