The road to an autonomous future experienced a tragic setback on March 18, as an Uber Volvo XC90 SUV in self-driving mode struck and killed a pedestrian.
The accident occurred in Tempe, Arizona and marks the first known fatality involving an autonomous vehicle.
A media firestorm followed the incident, with critics of driverless vehicles coming forward to reinforce their stance. Everyone from Arizona officials to Uber executives have faced flack following the fatality. But while an investigation is still ongoing, Uber appears to have already reached a financial settlement with the victim’s family.
An attorney representing the husband and daughter of Elaine Herzberg, the 49-year-old victim, has confirmed the settlement. While details have been released, the attorney did say the matter had been resolved.
It was reportedly late at night when Herzberg tried to cross the road on a bicycle. Though Uber executives have expressed condolences and have been cooperating with investigators, no official statement has been released about what caused the crash.
This hasn’t stopped people from speculating, however. Everyone from autonomous vehicle experts who know the technology well to casual observers with a vested interest in keeping the roads safe have weighed in on the situation.
Autonomous vehicles of today usually have a human driver on board, and in some cases also have an engineer or tech along for the trip. The 22-second video of the fatal crash appears to show the human driver looking down at the moment of impact, with the crash occurring while the vehicle was in self-driving mode.
Following the accident, Arizona governor Doug Ducey suspended testing of the vehicles on the state’s roads. However, new emails suggest he sanctioned the tests without informing the public, and even allowed them without mandating that a person be behind the wheel to act as an emergency backup.
Lior Ron, an Uber executive and co-founder of Otto, the self-driving startup they purchased in 2016, has stepped down amid the controversy.
Even companies that have worked with Uber previously, such as graphics card creator Nvidia, have taken steps to distance themselves from the company following the crash.
As for the cause, some people have pointed to Uber’s decision to remove some sensors from their vehicles. Some newer models have only one sensor mounted atop the car. By comparison, older models sometimes used up to seven.
Fewer sensors mean more blind spots. Laser light pulses are used to help the sensors detect road hazards in a system called lidar. While the sensors are designed to detect hazards around the vehicle, the vertical range is narrow and can make it hard to see low obstacles even if they’re in front of the sensor.
Uber may be at the forefront of the self-driving discussion, but they weren’t the first company to begin refining the technology. Waymo was one of the first pioneers, starting on the technology nearly a decade ago.
Uber’s self-driving program launched in early 2015, with the purchase of Otto in the summer of 2016 helping them progress quickly to the testing phase.