Robocar critics emboldened by Uber crash

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The crash involving a self-driving Uber that struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona has emboldened critics of the push by Congress to allow automakers to sell thousands of driverless cars.

Investigators examine a driverless Uber SUV that fatally struck a woman in Tempe, Ariz.

Forty-nine-year-old Elaine Herzberg was hit by a 2017 Volvo XC90 SUV that was being operated autonomously by Uber in Tempe, Arizona, around 10 p.m. Sunday, according to police in the Phoenix suburb. She later died at the hospital in what is believed to be the first fatality in a pedestrian accident involving an autonomous vehicle.

The fatal crash comes as Congress tries to wrap up work on legislation that would allow automakers to sell thousands of self-driving cars in the near future. It immediately prompted calls from consumer safety advocates in Congress and Washington to pump the brakes on self-driving cars.

“This tragic incident makes clear that autonomous vehicle technology has a long way to go before it is truly safe for the passengers, pedestrians, and drivers who share America’s roads,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a statement.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., added: “This tragic accident underscores why we need to be exceptionally cautious when testing and deploying autonomous vehicle technologies on public roads.”

Prior to the Uber accident, Congress appeared to be rushing to give automakers wide latitude to test and sell self-driving cars. A bill championed by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, would allow automakers to sell as many as 80,000 self-driving cars a year. A similar measure has already been passed by the U.S. House, a fact that House members who back self-driving cars have been eager to point out.

The Trump administration is also gearing up to release its second set of voluntary guidelines for self-driving car operation, which followed a previous framework released in 2016 by former President Barack Obama’s administration.

Federal rules currently require cars to have a human operator. The pending legislation would allow automakers to apply for exemptions if they can prove their self-driving cars can match the safety of existing cars.

An operator was behind the steering wheel of the Uber vehicle, although it was being operated in self-drive mode, when it hit Herzberg, who walking a bicycle outside of a crosswalk. A video released by the police department Wednesday shows an Uber operator who appears to divert her eyes from the road in the moments before the crash.

Peters said in a statement provided to The Detroit News that the Uber accident is “concerning,” and he said lawmakers will “need to get all the facts about what caused it.”

“Congress must move quickly to enhance oversight of self-driving vehicles by updating federal safety rules and ensuring regulators have the right tools and resources to oversee the safe testing and deployment of these emerging technologies,” he said.

His office noted that the self-driving bill that is being considered by Congress requires car manufacturers to submit mandatory evaluations that are supposed to detail how self-driving vehicles meet safety criteria before they are deployed. The office also noted that the government spending bill being considered by Congress this week includes $100 million for research into self-driving vehicles.

David Friedman, director of cars and product policy and analysis for Consumers Union, said automakers and technology companies have overestimated self-driving cars’ capabilities.

“If you look at self-driving cars today, at best they are novice drivers,” he said. “We need to be thinking about having protections that are similar to the ones you have for novice drivers. You should have to prove that you’re well-trained in order to do things like drive at night or drive at speeds.”

Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said the crash “should be a clear wake-up call for Congress to halt this flawed legislation and add desperately-needed minimum performance requirements and safety standards.”

Polls have shown drivers have been slow to accept the premise of self-driving cars. A survey conducted by AlixPartners in September 2017 showed 84 percent of respondents said they are concerned about vehicle-software malfunctions in self-driving cars, and close to 80 percent said they were worried about potential hardware malfunctions.

Friedman said automakers will have to take into account that drivers are likely to react differently to accidents that involving autonomous cars if they hope to increase consumer acceptance: “When you look at the way we react to airplane crashes or when there is a major recall like GM’s ignition switch, we react differently when something bad happens and we are not the ones in control.”