Self-driving cars could face a 'huge setback' after the death of a woman struck by an autonomous Uber

Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesAn Uber self-driving car.
  • An Uber self-driving car struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona, on Monday in the first known death of a pedestrian by an autonomous vehicle.
  • Uber and other companies developing self-driving technology, like Waymo and General Motors, will have to more work to do to show that their autonomous vehicles are safer than those driven by humans.
  • Uber had hoped to launch an autonomous ride-sharing service in mid-2019, but that target may now be pushed back.

An Uber self-driving car struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona, on Monday in the first known death of a pedestrian by an autonomous vehicle.

While the vehicle was in autonomous mode, there was a human driver behind the wheel, Tempe police said in a statement. Uber said in a statement to Business Insider that it was “fully cooperating with authorities.”

The tragic incident highlights a concern that has lingered ever since self-driving cars were introduced into the public consciousness. While proponents of autonomous vehicles believe they will be much safer than those driven by humans, they will have to prove that Monday’s accident and subsequent ones are not the result of fundamental flaws in self-driving technology.

Companies like Waymo,General Motors, and Uber have been testing self-driving cars for years over millions of miles. That Monday’s accident was the first fatal incident involving a fully autonomous vehicle indicates that arguments for their safety have merit, but much of that testing has occurred on highways, which are easier for self-driving cars to navigate than dense, urban environments.

As companies continue to increase the number of tests they conduct in cities, their vehicles are facing the kinds of challenges – like pedestrians and intersections – that are more difficult for self-driving cars to handle. Even a small number of high-profile accidents could do more than statistics to influence the opinions of lawmakers and potential customers, at least in the short term.

The Uber accident could be a setback for autonomous vehicles

Photo: Glassdoor/Uber

Attorney Neama Rahmani told Business Insider that Monday’s accident will be “a huge setback” for companies that want to introduce autonomous vehicles for personal use or through ride-sharing services.

“I think it will push [timelines] back because these safety issues have to be worked out, and they clearly haven’t been,” he said.

In January, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said he expected Uber to roll out an autonomous ride-hailing service by mid-2019, but that timeline may be pushed back, as the company will have to provide reassurance that an autonomous ride-hailing service will be safer for passengers and pedestrians than one operated by human drivers. Waymo hopes to launch an autonomous ride-hailing service in several cities by the end of this year, and GM plans to do so in 2019, though it’s unclear if either company will have to delay those targets.

Monday’s accident may also call into question new regulations from states like California and Arizona that are letting auto and tech companies test self-driving vehicles without human backup drivers that can intervene if the vehicle makes a mistake.

Like any new, transformative technology, self-driving cars have the potential to make people’s lives easier and safer on a wide scale. How soon auto and tech companies are able to turn self-driving cars from a possibility into a reality will depend on how they deal with the growing pains along the way.

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