For a few years now, analysts have been touting the future benefits of self-driving cars. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group of scientists that analyze the planet’s problems and come up with solutions, one of the principal benefits of a self-driving car is safer transportation. According to the scientists, machines make fewer errors than humans. The switch to autonomous vehicles could improve the safety of all road users. However, the recent death of a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona shows that this prospective reality might be a little farther in the future than originally thought.
Last week, a woman was hit and killed by an Uber self-driving car. The death is being reported as the first pedestrian death related to autonomous car technology. According to an article in the New York Times, a Volvo XC90 sport utility vehicle (modified using a sensor system) was driving in autonomous mode when it struck and killed Elaine Herzberg. According to reports, there was a designated safety operator at the wheel and no passengers aboard. The car was traveling roughly 40 miles-per-hour when the accident occurred. Ms. Herzberg was walking her bicycle across the street when she was struck.
Officials from the police department released a portion of the dashcam video from the vehicle showing both the exterior and interior of the car shortly before the accident. The video can be found in the New York Times article. We warn readers that the video does contain graphic material. The video shows that the safety handler was distracted and not focusing on the road. Drivers are instructed to maintain both hands hovering above the wheel of the car so they can take control of the vehicle in an emergency situation. Authorities reported that the driver was not impaired at the time of the accident.
This accident shows that companies seeking to make autonomous cars a reality are still in a developmental stage with this technology. Although many companies are simultaneously racing to be the first to develop the technology, there are still significant risks involved. Similarly, governments are still grappling with the problems of regulation and how to efficiently hold people responsible in a court of law.
While Ms. Herzberg is reported as being the first pedestrian killed by self-driving technology, she is not the first person to die related to self-driving cars. In 2016, an Ohio resident, Joshua Brown, was killed in a crash in Florida after using Tesla’s self-driving technology. The 40-year-old man was killed when his Tesla Model S crashed into a truck that crossed his path. According to a report released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the driver ignored warnings to put his hands on the wheel. A report by USA Today points out that the driver should have seen the truck roughly seven seconds before the crash occurred. The NHTSA called this a “period of extended distraction.”
Here at The Advocates Law Firm, we express our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Ms. Herzberg. On our blog, we frequently write about accidents that bring up interesting legal questions and problems. In this case particularly, there is a problematic matter of who to hold accountable when a self-driving car hits someone. What do you think? Do you think the companies who create the autonomous vehicles should be held responsible or should the person in the car be at-fault? What kinds of laws would you support to hold these people accountable?