The first pedestrian death by a self-driving Uber could be a 'turning point' for autonomous technology

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  • A woman was struck and killed by self-driving Uber in Arizona.
  • The car was travelling at 40mph and appeared to not slow down. Police have said the woman wasn’t using a pedestrian crossing.
  • Experts see safety questions about autonomous vehicles as an extremely challenging policy area and one says this is a “turning point” in the debate around self-driving vehicles in cities.

The autonomous vehicle industry received a major setback today when a self-driving Uber was involved in the death of a 49-year-old pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona.

The car was travelling about 40mph (65km/h) and did not appear to slow down when the pedestrian entered the road. A driver was behind the wheel but police say it appeared there was no time to take control of the car.

It’s believed to be the first time a pedestrian has been killed by an autonomous vehicle, and the debate about the ethics, safety, and legal culpability of the technology has already begun.

Swinburne University associate professor Hussein Dia says the event will be a “turning point in the conversation about the testing of autonomous vehicles in an urban context”.

“A human fatality will increase public and regulatory scrutiny of this technology, which is aimed at achieving the opposite outcome – saving lives,” Dia says.

Since the moment autonomous vehicles were rolled out, their creators – notably, Elon Musk – have made a point of sending the message out with them that this technology can actually be safer than letting a human control a car.

Dia says this incident raises questions about whether autonomous vehicles should be tested on public roads, but more importantly, which companies should be permitted to test them.

“Not all self-driving software is at the same stage of development and readiness,” Dia says.

“Some companies have been testing the self-driving software for years and their algorithms are much more developed than others. There needs to be more scrutiny of the underlying AI systems before the autonomous vehicles are allowed on open roads.”

Unfortunately, Dia says, the police are already blaming the victim for “crossing outside of the crosswalk”.

The local police chief, Sylvia Moir, in Tempe has viewed video footage of the accident and says Uber is “likely” not at fault.

“It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway,” Moir said.

But according to Dia, “this is not a valid justification for traffic deaths and should not be used to provide a cover for the companies who operate these trials”.

Despite the fact that just last year he warned “it would not be long” before an autonomous car killed a pedestrian or cyclist, professor Toby Walsh at optimisation reserach group Data61 still believes they are the safest option for the future.

“We must balance this one death against the 10 or so people killed every day in the US by human drivers,” he said, but called for a “central authority” that explores reasons for a crash and shares the lessons with all manufacturers and operators.

“It shouldn’t be a race where no one talks to each other,” Walsh said.

In a brief statement provided to Business Insider, Uber confirmed someone had died and said the company was cooperating with investigators.

A spokesperson said: “Our hearts go out to the victim’s family. We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident.”

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