Uber’s autonomous cars banned in Arizona following fatal collision
Arizona has indefinitely banned Uber’s autonomous cars following last week’s fatal collision involving one of its vehicles, according to the Associated Press.
In a letter to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, state governor Doug Ducey labelled the incident an “unquestionable failure” to comply with public safety standards.
Although Uber had already suspended testing of its autonomous vehicles, the ban represents a major setback for the company, which has also tested its driverless cars in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto.
Ducey’s spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said that the governor expects driverless cars to improve public safety in the long run, but that he wants this incident to be thoroughly investigated to determine if it was a one-off.
A spokesperson for Uber said it would “continue to help investigators in any way we can, and we’ll keep a dialogue open with the Governor’s office to address any concerns they have.”
In Arizona, companies operating autonomous vehicles only need liability insurance and are not required to report any information to the state. Earlier this month, the governor approved testing of driverless cars without a safety driver behind the wheel.
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Uber has come under intensified scrutiny after the New York Times obtained documents revealing the company’s vehicles were struggling to drive without human intervention ahead of the fatal incident involving one of its cars last week.
A New York Times article explains how Uber’s autonomous cars were struggling to hit a target of 13 miles per human “intervention” – a discovery it made after acquiring 100 pages of documents and speaking with two individuals “familiar with the company’s operations” in Phoenix. To put that in context, Waymo’s cars drove an average of 5,500 miles before a driver had to intervene during testing in California last year.
The New York Times’ also reveals that despite Uber being some way behind its competitors in terms of performance, “there was was pressure to live up to a goal to offer a driverless car service by the end of the year and to impress top executives”. Specifically, test drivers were being asked to do more including partaking in solo outings, where they had previously gone out in pairs, it claims.
Following early investigations into the fatal collision, Tempe’s police chief Sylvia Moir said “It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode”. However, after footage of the incident was released, debates about whether the autonomous vehicle ought to have detected the pedestrian in the road ensued.
Speaking at a car dealership conference in Las Vegas on Saturday, Waymo’s CEO, John Krafcik, claimed that his company’s autonomous cars would have avoided such a collision. “At Waymo, we have a lot of confidence that our technology would be able to handle a situation like that,” he said.
Velodyne, the company responsible for manufacturing the Lidar sensors in Uber’s autonomous cars said it was “baffled” by the incident and that it did not believe its hardware was to blame.
“Our Lidar can see perfectly well in the dark, as well as it sees in daylight, producing millions of points of information,” the company’s president Marta Hall told the BBC.
“However, it is up to the rest of the system to interpret and use the data to make decisions. We do not know how the Uber system of decision-making works.”
It’s not clear what the implications will be for the future of driverless cars following the first pedestrian death involving the technology, but it definitely won’t do wonders for public confidence that such unreliable technology was being used on open roads in the first place. The incident also raises important questions about the role of a safety driver, not least because the police footage reveals the Uber car’s safety driver looking down at their lap in the moments immediately leading up to the collision.