First pedestrian death from a self-driving car fuels safety debate

The autonomous vehicle hit a woman crossing the street

self-driving car

TRAGIC CRASH  A self-driving car involved in a fatal collision with a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz., is one of thousands of such vehicles deployed by Uber. The company has suspended their testing.

ABC-15/Associated Press

The first known pedestrian fatality involving a fully autonomous self-driving car will most likely raise questions about the vehicles’ safety.

But “until we know what happened, we can’t really know what this incident means” for the future of self-driving vehicles, says Philip Koopman, a robotics safety expert at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Only when we know more about the crash, including details on the actions of the pedestrian as well as data logs from the car, can we make judgments, he says.

The incident took place late Sunday night when a self-driving car operated by Uber hit and, ultimately, killed a woman crossing the street in Tempe, Ariz. Early reports indicate that a human safety driver was at the wheel, and the car was in autonomous mode. In response, Uber has suspended testing of its fleet of self-driving cars in Tempe and other cities across the nation. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, the New York Times reports.

The NTSB has previously conducted an investigation into the 2016 death of a man who was driving a partly autonomous Tesla, concluding that the driver ignored multiple safety warnings.

Self-driving cars already face high levels of mistrust from other motorists and potential passengers. In a AAA survey in 2017, 85 percent of baby boomers and 73 percent of millennials reported being afraid to ride in self-driving cars (SN Online: 11/21/17).

It is widely accepted by experts such as Koopman that autonomous cars will eventually be safer drivers than the average person, because the vehicles don’t get distracted, among other things. But proving that safety may be time-consuming. A 2016 study by Nidhi Kalra, an information scientist at the RAND Corporation in San Francisco, found that self-driving cars might have to drive on roads for decades to statistically prove their superior safety.

When — or if — self-driving cars are proven safer than human drivers, the vehicles will still have to contend with other questions, such as whether to take steps to protect passengers or pedestrians in a collision (SN: 12/24/16, p. 34).

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