Uber Autonomous Car Death Reinforces Doubt About Fully Autonomous Vehicles


On March 18th at approximately 10 pm, a pedestrian was killed by a fully autonomous Volvo XC90 SUV managed by Uber in Tempe, Arizona. She was crossing the street at the time when the collision occurred. Even though someone was behind the wheel of the vehicle to monitor the technology and stop the car in case of an emergency, the reaction was not fast enough to prevent the fatal accident. The automobile was driving approximately 40 miles in a 35-mph zone, and this is the first fully autonomous vehicle death. Details are still emerging about the specifics of the crash, but the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are sending teams to investigate the events further.

Uber’s New Frontier

In 2016, Uber began developing its self-driving car division and started putting cars on the road between 2016 and 2017. Throughout much of 2017 and early 2018, the ride-hailing company had autonomous vehicles riding through the streets of San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Phoenix, and Tempe. In December of last year, Uber celebrated the two-million-mile milestone of its fleet of cars. The company’s momentum was on an upswing after a rollover accident that occurred in April, and the firing of its former program head, Anthony Levandowski in May due to his connection with selling Waymo’s trade secrets.

A Monumental Blow to Momentum

The accident on Sunday ended any momentum the division once had, as all self-driving vehicles in all participating cities have been taken off the streets. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Uber’s self-driving vehicle program has faced scrutiny. In addition to the rollover accident that occurred last year, Geekwire released an article entitled “We rode in Uber’s self-driving car, and now we’re less confident in the future of autonomous vehicles.” In the article, two Pittsburgh writers for Geekwire detailed malfunctions that occurred with the fully autonomous Volvo XC90 SUV in February of this year. The car hit a pothole which shook the steering wheel enough to cause the vehicle to go back to manual mode. A few minutes after this event, the Volvo XC90 would not re-enter self-driving mode, so the operator had to manually drive back to the Uber facility to end the ride. During the trip, both writers remarked on their wariness of the jolts they experienced as the car changed speeds.

There is Still Work to be Done…

The article included a quote by Bryan Salesky, CEO of Argo AI. Argo AI is an up-and-coming self-driving startup in Pittsburgh. This statement is what Salesky had to say about the technical challenges still facing autonomous vehicles:

“Those who think fully self-driving vehicles will be ubiquitous on city streets months from now or even in a few years are not well connected to the state of the art or committed to the safe deployment of the technology,” he wrote. “For those of us who have been working on the technology for a long time, we’re going to tell you the issue is still really hard, as the systems are as complex as ever.”

What Happens Now?

As mentioned above, the NTSB and NHTSA will begin their investigation into what Uber could have done to prevent the accident. However, as most would think, this will have far-reaching effects on other car manufacturers that are testing autonomous vehicle technologies. On Wednesday, Toyota executives announced the company is suspending test drives of its ‘Chauffer” autonomous driving system. This event marks the first major manufacturer to halt their self-driving car tests. It is likely that as more details emerge, others may soon follow suit. City governments are also observing, as the Boston Department of Transportation has asked companies testing self-driving cars in the city to halt operations.

There is no doubt this will fuel hesitation and fear about the mainstream adoption of autonomous cars. Many manufacturers have cited 2020 as the year many of these vehicles will be prepared for the public to purchase and drive, but the timeline now feels unfeasible. The public has never been fully trusting of self-driving cars. A survey by AAA revealed that 78 percent of respondents were afraid to ride in an autonomous vehicle. With the tragic and unfortunate incident that occurred Sunday, it likely that number will increase. This event will make gaining consumer trust an uphill battle in the race to self-driving innovation.