(Adds lawmaker comment, Uber background)
By Sydney Maki and Alexandria Sage
TEMPE, Ariz./SAN FRANCISCO, March 19 (Reuters) - An Uber
self-driving car hit and killed a woman crossing the
street in Arizona, police said on Monday, marking the first
fatality caused by an autonomous vehicle and a potential blow to
the technology expected to transform transportation.
The ride services company said it was suspending North
American tests of its self-driving vehicles.
So-called robot cars, when fully developed by companies
including Uber, Alphabet Inc and General Motors Co
, are expected to drastically cut down on motor vehicle
fatalities and create billion-dollar businesses. But Monday's
accident underscored the potential challenges ahead for the
promising technology as the cars confront real-world situations
involving real people.
The accident spurred immediate reaction from U.S. lawmakers
who have been debating whether to pass legislation that would
speed introduction of self-driving cars into the United States.
"This tragic accident underscores why we need to be
exceptionally cautious when testing and deploying autonomous
vehicle technologies on public roads," said Democratic Senator
Edward Markey of Massachusetts, a member of the transportation
committee, in a statement.
The Uber vehicle was in autonomous mode with an operator
behind the wheel at the time of the accident, which occurred
Sunday about 10 p.m. MST (0400 GMT Monday) in Tempe, a suburb
about 11 miles (18 km) east of Phoenix.
"The vehicle was traveling northbound ... when a female
walking outside of the crosswalk crossed the road from west to
east when she was struck by the Uber vehicle," police said in a
statement, identifying the victim as Elaine Herzberg, 49.
Herzberg later died from her injuries in a hospital, police
said. Further details on the accident were not immediately
Local television footage of the scene showed a crumpled bike
and a Volvo XC90 SUV with a smashed-in front. Uber has been
using special versions of Volvo's SUV for its testing, but a
Volvo spokesman said the autonomous technology used in the
vehicle at the time of the accident was not made by Volvo.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
(NHTSA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said
they were sending teams to investigate the crash. NHTSA also
said it was in contact with Volvo, the Swedish car brand owned
by China's Geely.
Canada's transportation ministry in Ontario, where Uber
conducts testing, also said it was reviewing the accident.
Uber and Waymo on Friday urged Congress to pass sweeping
legislation to speed the introduction of self-driving cars into
the United States. Some congressional Democrats have blocked the
legislation over safety concerns, and Monday's fatality could
hamper the quick passage of the bill, congressional aides said
Safety advocates called for a national moratorium on all
robot car testing on public roads.
"Arizona has been the wild west of robot car testing with
virtually no regulations in place," said Consumer Watchdog, a
non-profit consumer advocacy group, in a statement. "That's why
Uber and Waymo test there. When there's no sheriff in town,
people get killed.”
Arizona has opened its arms to companies testing
self-driving vehicles as a means to economic growth and jobs.
Republican Governor Doug Ducey signed an executive order in 2015
allowing for the testing of such vehicles on Arizona streets and
reached out to Uber a year later, after California regulators
cracked down on the company over its failure to obtain testing
Self-driving cars being tested routinely get into
fender-benders with other vehicles. Last week, a self-driving
Uber crashed with another vehicle in Pittsburgh, local news
reported. There were no injuries.
A year ago, Uber temporarily grounded its self-driving cars
for a few days following a crash with another car in Tempe. The
company has been the subject of a number of complaints about its
autonomous vehicles, but the company has said the cars were
being driven by a human driver at the time of the incidents.
ESSENTIAL TO UBER'S SUCCESS
Uber has said its ability to build autonomous cars is
essential to its success in the rapidly changing transportation
industry. The company envisions a network of autonomous cars
that would be summoned through the Uber app that would
supplement - and eventually replace - human-driven cars.
Uber has logged 2 million self-driving miles (3.2 million
km) through December. The company has more than 100 autonomous
cars testing on the roads of the greater Phoenix area, the
company's prime testing ground due to the state's loose
regulations and hospitable weather. Rain, snow and ice are
particularly challenging for autonomous cars. The company also
tests in Pittsburgh and Toronto.
Concerns over the safety of autonomous vehicles flared after
a July 2016 fatality involving a Tesla Inc automobile.
The car involved in that accident featured a partially
autonomous system that required human supervision. Uber's
vehicle, on the other hand, is considered a full self-driving
vehicle where a human is not needed at the wheel.
Safety regulators later determined Tesla was not at fault.
Uber has weathered a series of crises, including sexual
harassment claims, controversy over its use of a tracking tool
to avoid government officials, and a high-profile lawsuit
brought by competitor Waymo alleging theft of self-driving trade
secrets. It settled that lawsuit last month, with Uber paying
$245 million of its own shares to Waymo.
That settlement was largely seen as a means for Uber to
resume work on autonomous cars without the distraction of
litigation, as it hustles to catch up with Waymo, widely seen as
having the most advanced cars in the industry.
(Reporting by Sydney Maki and Alexandria Sage; Additional
reporting by Dave Shepardson, Tina Bellon, Heather Somerville,
David Schwartz, Allison Lampert; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and
First Published: 2018-03-19 19:15:49
Updated 2018-03-19 22:31:11
© 2018 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved. Reuters content is the intellectual property of Thomson Reuters or its third party content providers. Any copying, republication or redistribution of Reuters content, including by framing or similar means, is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Thomson Reuters. Thomson Reuters shall not be liable for any errors or delays in content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon. "Reuters" and the Reuters Logo are trademarks of Thomson Reuters and its affiliated companies.