Automakers and tech companies from Google to Tesla are racing to get autonomous vehicles on the road. But are they going too fast? When Uber’s driverless car caused a fatal pedestrian accident in March it caused some to say it was time to put on the brakes.
On March 18, 2018, late on a Sunday night, one of Uber’s driverless car tests failed in a catastrophic way. The autonomous vehicle struck and killed Elaine Herzberg, who was walking her bicycle across a street in Tempe, Arizona. Dash-cam footage from Uber shows Herzberg was visible as she crossed the vehicle’s path. Uber’s backup driver had looked away and was not able to prevent the fatal pedestrian accident.
Autonomous Vehicles Race Ahead of Regulation
States across the country – from Arizona to Michigan – have been trying to attract autonomous vehicle manufacturers for years. In 2015, Arizona’s governor, Doug Ducey, signed an executive order creating a regulation-free environment for testing by companies like Uber and Waymo. In 2016, Michigan enacted the first set of laws governing driverless cars, authorizing their use and purchase as long as they had passed national regulatory standards. But some states, including California, have imposed stricter safety regulations on autonomous vehicles.
Federal regulations of driverless cars have been slow in coming. Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) revised its standards, creating voluntary guidelines for self-driving cars. In other words, it is currently up to the automakers themselves to look out for the safety of pedestrians, passengers, and other vehicles traveling near the driverless cars. Congress is currently considering a set of nationwide safety standards that would regulate the industry and prevent states from creating more restrictive laws, but they have not yet passed the Senate. For now, driverless car manufacturers are their own bosses when it comes to safety – except in those states with strict regulations.
Driverless Car Crashes Raise Legal and Safety Questions
The developers of autonomous vehicles have been promising their inventions would be safe for years. Some go so far as to say they are safer than cars driven by people. They say by pushing driverless cars to market, they will be able to drastically reduce the tens of thousands of people who die in traffic-related accidents every year. Because a high percentage of those accidents can be traced to human error, included distracted driving, the artificial intelligence will be safer, eventually.
In the meantime, crashes like the one that killed Ms. Herzberg show that the programs still have a long way to go. While Uber’s driverless car appears to be the first to cause fatal pedestrian accident, it is not the first time a self-driving car has killed someone. In 2016, a Tesla Model S caused a crash, killing its driver, Joshua Brown. The Model S’s Autopilot feature failed to brake when a tractor trailer turned in front of the vehicle. Around the same time a Tesla Model X SUV struck a concrete barrier, killing Michigan resident Albert Scaglione. Another Model X was involved in a fatal crash on March 23, 2018. After that crash, the car’s battery caught fire, causing substantial damage.
Fatal Pedestrian Accident Could Slow Driverless Car Development
These more recent crashes, particularly Tempe’s fatal pedestrian accident, raise the question of whether driverless cars are truly ready for street testing. Herzberg’s death has the potential to call regulators to task and make manufacturers take safety more seriously. Michael Bennett, an associate research professor at Arizona State University told the New York Times:
“We’ve imagined an event like this as a huge inflection point for the technology and the companies advocating for it. . . . They’re going to have to do a lot to prove that the technology is safe.”
How the NHTSA and other regulators will react to the fatal pedestrian accident remains to be seen. Uber has temporarily suspended its driverless car testing across the country. It has also reached a settlement with Herzberg’s family – though the amount of that settlement remains secret. Unless autonomous vehicle manufacturers can find ways to improve pedestrian safety, their driverless cars could stay parked for quite a while.
At Macomb Law Group, our auto accident injury attorneys stay on top of the latest laws and news about auto accidents. If you or a loved one have been seriously injured in a pedestrian accident, contact Macomb Law Group and get our team working for you.