Uber told to stop testing driverless cars in Arizona

Arizona has called a halt to Uber’s self driving car programme following the death of a pedestrian last week.

In a letter sent to Uber’s Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi the state’s Governor Doug Ducey said he found a video released by police of the crash “disturbing and alarming, and it raises many questions about the ability of Uber to continue testing in Arizona.”

The crash on March 18th is being investigated by police and safety regulators after a woman was struck and killed by a car in autonomous mode as she crossed a four lane road at night. It was the first death by a ‘self driving’ car and has focussed new attention on the lack of safety standards in this new industry where regulation has failed to keep pace with business.

“In the best interests of the people of my state, I have directed the Arizona Department of Transportation to suspend Uber’s ability to test and operate autonomous vehicles on Arizona’s public roadways,” Ducey said.

It is remarkably different from the tone struck in 2016 when Ducey invited Uber to the state, saying: “Arizona welcomes Uber self-driving cars with open arms and wide open roads.” At the time, a banner was hung on a building in Phoenix welcoming Uber.

Uber put a temporary halt to its self-driving car programme saying they “proactively suspended self-driving operations in all cities following the tragic accident.”

“We continue to help investigators in any way we can, and we’ll keep a dialogue open with the governor’s office going forward,” a spokesman told AFP.

Footage from the dashcam shows the vehicle operator, a convicted armed robber Rafaela Vasquez, looking down for about five seconds before gazing up and gasping in horror as the car hit the pedestrian.

Police released the footage, along with the video of the road, showing the car hitting Elaine Herzberg as she crossed the road with her bicycle before being hit by the SUV.

Police chief Sylvia Moir told the San Francisco Chronicle last week that, while the investigation continued, “it appears that the Uber would likely not be at fault,” mainly because the pedestrian was not using a crosswalk.

However experts who viewed the video said the SUV’s laser and radar sensors should have spotted Herzberg and her bicycle in time to brake.

Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies autonomous vehicles, said his first impression was of “outrage” viewing the video.

“The victim did not come out of nowhere. She’s moving on a dark road, but it’s an open road, so Lidar (laser) and radar should have detected and classified her” as a human, he told the Associated Press.

He added, “although this video isn’t the full picture, it strongly suggests a failure by Uber’s automated driving system and a lack of due care by Uber’s driver (and by the victim)”.

Another autonomous driving expert agreed with Smith’s assessment.

“The sensors should have detected the pedestrian in this case; the cameras were likely useless but both the radars and the Lidar must have picked up the pedestrian,” Raj Rajkumar, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, told Reuters

“Though no information is available, one would have to conclude based on this video alone, that there are problems in the Uber vehicle software that need to be rectified,” he said.

Meanwhile, Toyota have put their self driving programme on hold, saying the incident in Arizona “may have an emotional effect on our test drivers.”

“We have decided to temporarily pause our Chauffeur mode testing on public roads,’ said Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons.

The firm had been doing tests on public roads in Michigan and California, and was even planning to join forces with Uber to further develop autonomous driving technology.

The crash has raised concerns about whether lives are put at risk by allowing companies to use public roads as testing ground for self-driving vehicle technology with campaigners saying humans are being used as “guinea pigs” in the testing process.

Others have raised questions about the safety risks from hackers.

Fareed Baloch of zoom.taxi said, “it takes more than strapping sensors and software onto a set of wheels.

“These vehicles need to be able to see, interpret, and understand the behaviour of human drivers, cyclists, and pedestrian. The cars must understand when they’re in another vehicle’s blind spot and drive extra carefully. And they need to know how to see and hear an ambulance that needs more room.

“This needs a lot of testing. And governments should let public roads as a testing ground once the manufacturers are confident enough that their vehicles’ Lidars and cameras can see clearly in 3D, in all environments, in all light conditions, and can detect objects and their velocities at long or short distances.”

4 simple packages – Plus a 2 week FREE trial

With Zoom there are no monthly fees and no hidden charges. You just pay for what you use, with a fixed cost per journey. For branded passenger apps and booking widget there will be a small customisation fee.