First pedestrian death caused by speeding autonomous car

Uber car
Video screen capture Uber car after crash

Perhaps AVs should have their own lower speed limits until they figure this all out.

On September 13, 1899, Henry Bliss stepped off a streetcar in New York and was hit by an electric taxi. He died from his injuries the next day and is remembered as the first recorded death by automobile in the USA. The driver was charged with manslaughter but was acquitted "on the grounds that he had no malice, nor was he negligent." A hundred years later, a plaque was installed at 74th and Central Park West in his memory.

On March 18, 2018, Elaine Herzberg was killed by an autonomous vehicle, one of Uber's Volvo SUVs that were being tested in the Phoenix area, the first pedestrian known to be killed by an AV. It is probably as significant an event that will be remembered for a while.

There are many questions still, although the Tempe Police chief was quick to say that it was one of those famous "darts out of nowhere" that happen so often. Quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, it seems the victim is already being blamed:

From viewing the videos, “it’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway,” Moir said.... The incident happened within perhaps 100 yards of a crosswalk, Moir said. “It is dangerous to cross roadways in the evening hour when well-illuminated, managed crosswalks are available,” she said...“I suspect preliminarily it appears that the Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident, either,” Moir said.

I mean, what's a poor self-driving car supposed to do when a 49-year-old woman pushing a bike just jumps out in front of you? Probably demand more anti-jaywalking laws and fences on roads.

speed and death rate© Brian Tefft AAA

But beside the ridiculous victim-blaming before anything is really known, there are some other fundamental issues happening here. As we have written many times on TreeHugger, the rate at which people die when hit by vehicles is directly proportional to the speed the vehicle is going. This car was going 38 MPH in a 35 MPH zone, not serious speeding by human standards, but why is a robot car speeding at all? What's the hurry? Why not go slower for safety until you are sure this thing actually works?


I am obviously not alone questioning this; Alissa Walker does too. As Alex Steffen noted in his post titled "The future of cars is slow": "Smart streets in future cities — it looks to me — will likely be built not for hurtling suburban SUVs but for happy people and the slow robots that take them where they want to go."

statistics on deaths© New Scientist

It also varies according to the type of vehicle that is being driven; SUVs kill at higher rates than regular cars. This car was an Uber Volvo SUV, which at least is designed according to tougher European safety standards and has a lower front end, but it is still an SUV and higher than a conventional car.

testing google car© Google car test

When Google designed its Waymo Firefly, it was small and slow. It had no steering wheel so that a driver could pretend to be looking out. Its front end was soft and flexible. It was designed not to kill if it hit someone. It is a shame that they discontinued work on the Firefly; it was probably the right approach.

If we are going to allow self-driving cars on our roads, they are probably going to have to be slower and softer. Certainly this is all coming at us too fast.

No doubt there will be more to come about this tragic story.

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