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Federal Investigators Find Driver of Self-Driving Uber in Fatal Arizona Crash Saw Pedestrian, Failed to Brake

By: Allan M. Siegel

In March, a self-driving Uber accident made headlines after a test vehicle in Arizona caused the first known pedestrian fatality involving an autonomous car. As we discussed in a blog post regarding that accident, Uber formally postponed test operations in Arizona and other cities across the country pending a full investigation into what went wrong. Now, federal investigators have released their preliminary findings.

In a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), regulators found that the emergency braking system was not enabled at the time of the crash. Here are some important facts about their initial findings:

  • Investigators noted the self-driving Uber vehicle spotted the female pedestrian approximately six seconds before she was struck by the car.
  • Despite identifying the pedestrian, the vehicle did not apply the brakes, as the autonomous technology system used to apply brakes in such emergency situations had been disabled.
  • According to the NTSB, emergency braking is not enabled when autonomous Ubers are under computer control in order to “reduce potential for erratic vehicle behavior.”
  • With these systems inoperable, those autonomous vehicles rely on human intervention from “safety drivers” behind the wheel. However, the system is not designed to provide any warnings or alerts for those drivers.
  • A video released by authorities and reviewed by the NTSB showed the safety driver had attempted to steer the vehicle less than a second prior to impact, and was not able to brake until a second after impact. It also shows the safety driver had been looking down, away from the road before it struck and killed the pedestrian.

The NTSB report, which does not determine fault for the accident, is intended to provide additional information into what factors led to the crash, and the role both autonomous vehicle technology and human safety drivers play in avoiding such collisions. As noted by Uber, which pulled all testing of self-driving vehicles from Arizona just days before the report was released, the company has been working hand-in-hand with investigators to identify areas of safety improvement for future test operations and large scale commercialization of self-driving cars.

Autonomous Technology Still Being Refined

One of the most glaring takeaways from the NTSB report, which has already been widely expressed in the weeks since the fatal accident, is that autonomous vehicle technology is still very much in its testing phase. From software and programmed decision-making to emergency situation protocol and the role of safety drivers, there is still a tremendous amount of moving parts involved in the operation of self-driving vehicles that must be addressed by companies which develop and test them. This includes testing operations on public roads in states where regulations are still lax or unprepared to address issues posed by these unique accidents when they occur.

Addressing and refining autonomous technology and the issues it creates remains a major a concern, especially after it was discovered that the autonomous SUV involved in the crash was able to spot the pedestrian while traveling 43 mph, and needed 1.3 seconds to brake before impact. In this scenario, a better system for automatic braking, or a warning system for safety drivers could have prevented the death. Still, other issues involved in the crash show that it is important for vehicles to be able to assess and adapt to unpredictable situations. This includes the fact that the pedestrian had been crossing the road in a non-intersection without lights, was wearing dark clothing and had a bicycle with no lights or reflectors, and also tested positive for methamphetamine and marijuana, according to NTSB officials.

The report may not make any conclusions or decisive findings about the crash or about who should be held liable – an issue that still needs tremendous attention from lawmakers if autonomous vehicles are to hit the road anytime soon – but it does show that these vehicles need ample refinement and additional testing on controlled roads so as to protect public safety. Our laws and regulations also need to address how these vehicles can assimilate onto public roadways, and how any accidents they are involved in should be handled in terms of liability.

At Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata & Siegel, P.C., our firm has been handling auto accident cases throughout the DC metro area for decades. Throughout that time, we have dealt with many new and novel issues involving automobiles, advancements, and technology that required our laws and our approach to handling cases adapt. This is precisely what we see with self-driving vehicles today, and why we are actively on the forefront of tracking such issues before autonomous vehicles become a common presence on our roads. Until then, and when the time comes, we make ourselves readily available to help victims of all types of auto accidents protect their rights to compensation during the personal injury claim process. Contact us to speak with an attorney about a potential accident case.