Last Sunday an accident in Arizona involving an Uber-modified autonomous driving Volvo XC90 resulted in the death of a 49-year-old woman named Elaine Herzberg. The tragic event marked the first time that a pedestrian had been killed by a self-driving vehicle.
Reactions to the news came quickly from across the industry. One of the most strident actions has come from Toyota, which has temporarily suspended all activities related to its program testing self-driving cars.
Preliminary reports are that the self-driving technology was not at fault in the deadly accident. According to police, the victim was pushing her bicycle in the middle of a four-lane road when she apparently decided to change direction, leading her into the path of the vehicle being propelled by Uber technology. The car was traveling at 63 km/h at the moment of impact.
The car itself has not been pointed at as a cause of the accident, but it does appear that it did not brake or manoeuvre to try to avoid a collision. Is it possible that the pedestrian was already too close when she stepped into the Volvo’s path?
In any event, it’s clear that this once again shines a light on a highly sensitive subject: autonomous driving and how ready or willing we are as a society to embrace it. In this optic, Toyota decided it was necessary to bring its activities in this domain to a stop, if only temporarily. Toyota stated that "because we feel the incident may have an emotional effect on our test drivers, we have decided to temporarily pause our Chauffeur mode testing on public roads."
Toyota has been testing vehicles in Michigan and in California. It did not have as many vehicles currently on the road as does Uber, in part because it wanted to remain able to react and bring modifications to its cars and technologies quickly as required.
Toyota has not been the only company to react. Hyundai has let it be known that, in its view, the incident reinforces its cautious approach in regards to the mass production of autonomous vehicles.
The issue of self-driving technologies and their proper place in our vehicles and on our roads is not about to fade away any time soon, that much is clear. And if a similar tragic incident were to occur, wide-scale questioning is sure to take place, whether the technology is found to be at fault or not.