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Legal analysis of self driving Uber crash involving pedestrian fatality in Tempe, AZ

March 29, 2018 by Steven M. Gursten

Perfection will never be possible, but tragic pedestrian death in self driving Uber crash shouldn’t stop autonomous vehicles, which will save lives and reduce car accidents by 90% or more

Self driving Uber crash in Tempe, Arizona, results in tragic death of a pedestrian

News reports indicate that Uber and the attorney representing the family of the woman killed on March 18 in a self driving Uber crash have now reached a settlement. The 49-year-old woman was the first pedestrian death to be killed by a self-driving autonomous vehicle.

It troubles me that Uber probably threw so much money at the family that a settlement was reached in 10 days.  That suggests not only that Uber wanted to make the tragic death go away as quickly as possible, but that the company also did this to prevent legal discovery into what Uber knew about its self-driving cars.

I’ve been a proponent of driverless cars and as a car accident attorney, I’ve spoken at many legal conferences and seminars, including ironically just one week before this woman was killed in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on the legal liability for driverless vehicles.

The future promises to be far safer than what we have today, even though it will certainly not be perfect. There will still be car accidents caused by self-driving cars, but there will be far fewer car accidents than what we have today.

But there is a “grand bargain” implicit in this trade-off, and that is that the companies that are competing to advance and implement self-driving cars will not take short-cuts to rush this technology to the market. News reports suggest that Uber may have violated its part of this grand bargain, and the result is a 49-year-old woman who is now dead in Tempe, Arizona. It should also be noted that the self-driving Uber was operating in “autonomous mode” with a human driver present in the vehicle when she was struck and killed as a pedestrian.

A self driving Uber crash in a World of Trade-offs

The (super)fast settlement in the pedestrian death will now stop any civil legal investigation into the tragedy in Tempe before it ever begins. That, of course, is the point of reaching such a quick settlement. There is no reason for the Uber lawyers to rush into making such a quick settlement other than this.

We now will see if state and federal regulators will take the steps to hold the manufacturers of self-driving systems and autonomous vehicles – and the companies like Uber that use AV technology – accountable to prevent future loss of life if Uber was indeed violating its part of the grand bargain by rushing to bring its self-driving technology that wasn’t yet ready to be launched into the public sphere.

What I hope they don’t do, however, is slam the brakes on future testing and development of AV technology.

Every day there are approximately 100 people killed in car accidents.

Compare that to the 2 reported deaths so far that appear to be caused by self-driving cars.

The expectation in a world with driverless cars is that we can hope to see car crashes reduced by 90% or more.  We must remember that human error is the principal cause of the approximately 40,000 car accidents that occur annually in the United States. Autonomous vehicles will remove the possibility of car accidents caused by all-too-human driving error and judgment.

Autonomous vehicles do not text and drive. People do.

The accident in Tempe, tragic as it is, doesn’t change or undermine the larger goal of saving lives.

It should also be noted that despite early media reports, this fatal pedestrian death does not appear to be black and white. It appears, like so much else that is wrapped up in the implementation of self-driving technology, to have many shades of grey. It appears, in fact, that the self-driving Uber vehicle that killed the pedestrian in Arizona wasn’t entirely at-fault.

In statements to the media, Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir has made precisely this point:

  • “[I]t’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 … I suspect preliminarily it appears that the Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident …” (“Exclusive: Tempe police chief says early probe shows no fault by Uber,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 19, 2018)
  • The crash was likely “unavoidable …” (“Tempe police chief: Fatal Uber crash likely ‘unavoidable’ for any kind of driver,” azcentral.com, March 20, 2018)

It’s crucial that politicians do not overreact – as reportedly the Governor of Arizona already has – and that this possibly avoidable car accident death in Tempe not be allowed to interfere with the larger development and safe implementation of driverless cars – provided that the manufacturers and developers of this technology observe the “grand bargain” and not rush this technology to the market before it is ready to beat competitors.

People will still be killed and car accidents will still occur, but the hope is that there will be far fewer than we have today.

How unusual was this fatal self driving Uber crash involving a pedestrian?

Reuters reported that  this was “the first fatality involving an autonomous vehicle …” (“Self-driving Uber car kills Arizona woman crossing street,” Reuters, March 19, 2018)

Looking at statistics for Waymo, the self-driving car project formerly owned by Google, the Huffington Post has reported:

“Waymo has logged over two million miles on U.S. streets and has only had fault in one accident, making its cars by far the lowest at-fault rate of any driver class on the road— about 10 times lower than our safest demographic of human drivers (60–69 year-olds) and 40 times lower than new drivers, not to mention the obvious benefits gained from eliminating drunk drivers.” (“How Safe Are Self-Driving Cars?,” The Huffington Post, May 2, 2017)

In light of this self driving Uber crash, what do we need to remember about the safety benefits of autonomous vehicles?

The Economist has reported the following in terms of the number of lives that can and will be saved by driverless cars – on an annual basis:

“A realistic goal is a thousandfold improvement over human drivers, says Amnon Shashua of Mobileye, a maker of AV technology. That would reduce the number of road deaths in America each year from 40,000 to 40, a level last seen in 1900.” (“Self-driving cars will profoundly change the way people live,” The Economist, March 1, 2018)

Similarly, the Huffington Post noted:

“Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death of teenagers in the United States—with as many as 8,000 deaths per year caused by drivers ages 16–20 … If every teenage driver in Phoenix took Waymo instead, there would be as many as 12,000 fewer accidents per year. If all U.S. teen drivers traded car keys for the Waymo service, we could eliminate one million accidents and countless teen fatalities.” (“How Safe Are Self-Driving Cars?,” The Huffington Post, May 2, 2017)

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