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Uber suspends self-driving tests after fatal accident

zombieite/Flickr (CC-BY)

This is the first fatal incident involving a pedestrian.

A self-driving Uber car in autonomous mode killed a woman in Arizona in what appears to be the first fatal incident of its kind.

Uber has suspending self-driving car tests across the United States as law enforcement investigates the incident. Its autonomous vehicles will be taken off public roads in Pittsburgh, Toronto, San Francisco, and Phoenix.

A safety driver was reportedly in the driver seat as the car hit the woman while she crossed the street outside a crosswalk. The woman was taken to the hospital where she died as a result of her injuries, according to local Arizona news outlet ABC 15. Uber is required to have a safety driver behind the wheel when testing on public roads in case the self-driving technology fails.

It’s not clear why the safety driver didn’t correct the vehicle’s behavior and what legal responsibility they will be held accountable to.

Authorities did not clarify whether the incident occurred on Sunday night or Monday morning. The woman was also not publicly identified.

Uber said it was “fully cooperating” with local authorities in the investigation after giving its condolences. In a post on Twitter, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi offered his sympathy for the victim’s family.

Major tech and automotive companies are working to bring self-driving cars onto public roads. Studies suggest these machine-operated vehicles could save lives in the long term. Today’s incident will likely have a major impact on self-driving regulations going forward. It could also have repercussions on how self-driving cars are perceived and whether they will be readily adopted by the public.

We will update this article as we learn more.

Update 3:42pm CT, March 20: According to the Tempe police department’s preliminary investigation, the self-driving Volvo made no attempt to break. Based on footage from two onboard cameras, the vehicle may not have been at fault.

“It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway,” police chief Sylvia Moir told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The safety driver sitting behind the wheel, Rafaela Vasquez, said it was “like a flash” when the 49-year-old victim, Elaine Herzberg, allegedly walked in front of the vehicle.

“I suspect preliminarily it appears that the Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident,” Moir said in a controversial statement. The police department followed up with a statement clarifying, “Tempe Police Department does not determine fault in vehicular collisions.”

Moir was criticized for her “tone deaf” speculation and for suggesting the pedestrian was at fault for not using a crosswalk. However, some people noticed the design of the street appears to invite pedestrians to cross a busy intersection.

Uber faces criticism after it was determined that the driver of the autonomous car served almost four years in prison for an attempted armed robbery, according to AZCentral.

Local authorities are now working with the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to determine who is at fault.

Phillip Tracy

Phillip Tracy

Phillip Tracy is a former technology staff writer at the Daily Dot. He's an expert on smartphones, social media trends, and gadgets. He previously reported on IoT and telecom for RCR Wireless News and contributed to NewBay Media magazine. He now writes for Laptop magazine.