The fatal self-driving car crash has made Uber vulnerable — but it could end up saving the company

  • A fatal accident involving a self-driving vehicle was inevitable, but Uber is not currently in a position to handle one.
  • Last weekend’s fatal, self-driving car crash could make cities less likely to trust the company and undermine Uber’s claim that it’s a platform rather than a transportation service.
  • But it could also force Uber to improve the safety of its autonomous and human-driven vehicles.

A fatal accident involving a self-driving vehicle was inevitable, but no tech or auto company was in a worse position to handle one than Uber.

The company has spent the better part of the past year cleaning up the mess left by former CEO Travis Kalanick, who oversaw the company’s meteoric rise and turned it in into a symbol for the ruthless, growth-at-all-costs attitude that has come to represent the dark side of Silicon Valley.

Now, Uber has the ignoble distinction of being possibly the first company to be involved in a fatal crash with a self-driving vehicle. Immediately after last Sunday’s accident – in which a self-driving Volvo XC90 operated by Uber hit and killed a 49-year-old woman, Elaine Herzberg, in Tempe, Arizona – local police indicated that the accident probably wasn’t Uber’s fault.

The video of the accident raises doubts about Uber’s self-driving tech

But a video released on Wednesday and showing the moments before the accident indicates otherwise. The video reveals that Herzberg likely wouldn’t have been visible to the human eye long enough for the car’s backup driver to intervene, but the sensors, radar, and LIDAR systems that detect objects near self-driving vehicles shouldn’t have had the same problem.

“The sensors should have been able to detect her for several seconds before she was struck,” Navigant senior research analyst Sam Abuelsamid told Business Insider. “The system did not seem to respond at all. That’s a sign that Uber’s system really does not work very well.”

The video could end up shaping the reputation of the company’s self-driving arm in the same way a February 2017 video of Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver defined its current business as careless and insensitive. Even if Uber can perfect its self-driving technology by mid-2019, when it hopes to launch an autonomous ride-hailing service, city governments might not trust the company enough to work with them.

“Cities might be less willing to work with Uber,” Abuelsamid said. “They might be less willing to trust Uber to do the right thing and make sure that their vehicles are safe.”

Uber won’t be able to say it’s just a platform anymore

The effects of the accident could extend beyond Uber’s self-driving ambitions and undermine one of its fundamental claims: that it’s a platform which connects drivers and passengers, rather than a transportation service. Defining itself as a platform decreases the company’s liability for what happens to its customers, drivers, and the other vehicles they affect.

It will be much harder for Uber to make that argument now, according to attorney Neama Rahmani.

“This death was caused by either their operator or their manufacturer and now, this is going to make them not a technology company, but really a transportation company,” he told Business Insider. “And they will have to step up and pay out and accept responsibility for the conduct of their vehicle. There’s no independent contractor driver to blame anymore.”

While that redefinition won’t help Uber’s reputation or stock price in the short term, it could end up forcing the company to become more serious about safety, which could save the company in the long run.

“I think the positive thing that will come out of this is Uber is going to invest a lot more in the safety of its riders,” Rahmani said.

That process would be painful, but it could end up being the reason the company doesn’t become a victim of its recklessness.