Uber first got their start in the field of self-driving cars after purchasing self-driving startup Otto back in 2016.
Since then, the transportation company has been quietly developing and testing autonomous vehicles on America’s roads in select areas. One such area was Arizona – but sadly, the tech appears to have caused a tragedy.
On the night of March 18, a woman was attempting to cross the road when she was struck by an Uber car in autonomous mode. She was transported to a local hospital where she later died from her injuries.
The accident, though not the first involving self-driving technology, does mark the first time a pedestrian fatality was caused by an autonomous vehicle. After the sad incident, Arizona governor Doug Ducey made what seemed to be the right call – he suspended further self-driving tests by Uber in the state.
But that choice may have been tougher to make than initially thought. That’s because new emails seem to reveal the governor had an ongoing relationship with the company for years. A noted fan of the Silicon Valley firm and their willingness to experiment with new technology, Ducey greenlit autonomous vehicle testing on Arizona roads back in mid-2016 – without informing the public.
He also faced criticism for not having experts there to oversee the tests. A spokesperson for the governor said the autonomous vehicle tests were shared with the public but didn’t release any further comments on the issue.
Emails appear to show Uber executives attempting to sway the governor by promising money and that jobs would come to the state. However, this could be seen as business as usual. Any organization that wants to use a state’s infrastructure for testing purposes is almost always required to demonstrate how such a move would benefit the state itself.
While the governor may have to answer for his questionable handling of the self-driving tests, Uber executive Lior Ron won’t – at least not from that position.
The co-creator of Otto and co-founder of Uber’s trucking unit has walked away from the company following news of the fatal collision. Despite a history with Otto, reports state he was not involved with the company’s self-driving department.
Uber has done a lot of work in the trucking industry as of late. Their Uber Freight app has been well received, though Otto’s other co-founder, Anthony Levandowski, was accused of stealing trade secrets for self-driving vehicles from Waymo, the self-driving department of Google.
As for the fatal crash itself, police noted that the darkness would’ve made it hard for any human driver to have spotted the woman. But Uber is also facing backlash about their decision to remove sensors from the vehicle, with some saying this change could’ve led to a blind spot.
Many people were not totally convinced that self-driving vehicles could be trusted. This issue has raised more discussion about safety, but both Uber and the investigating agencies are keeping their comments scarce until the mourning period for the victim has completed.