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Friday 18 January 2019

Self-driving Uber car hits and kills cyclist as she walks on road

A Volvo SUV operated by Uber in Arizona
A Volvo SUV operated by Uber in Arizona

Sydney Maki and Alexandria Sage

An Uber self-driving car hit and killed a woman crossing the street in Arizona, police said on Monday, the first fatality caused by an autonomous vehicle and a potential blow to the technology expected to transform transportation.

The taxi company said it was suspending North American tests of its self-driving vehicles, which are currently going on in Arizona, Pittsburgh and Toronto.

So-called robot cars, when fully developed by companies including Uber, Alphabet Inc and General Motors, are expected to drastically cut down on road fatalities and create billion-dollar businesses. But yesterday's accident underscored the possible challenges ahead for the promising technology as the cars confront real-world situations involving real people.

US lawmakers have been debating legislation that would hasten introduction of self-driving cars.

"This tragic accident underscores why we need to be exceptionally cautious when testing and deploying autonomous vehicle technologies on public roads," said Democratic Senator Edward Markey, a member of the transportation committee.

Elaine Herzberg (49) was walking her bicycle outside the crosswalk on a four-lane road in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe when she was struck by the Uber vehicle travelling at about 65kph, police said. The car was in autonomous mode with an operator behind the wheel. Ms Herzberg later died from her injuries in hospital.

Local television footage of the scene showed a crumpled bike and a Volvo XC90 SUV with a damaged front.

Volvo, the Swedish car brand, confirmed its vehicle was involved in the crash but said the software controlling the SUV was not its own. US federal safety regulators were sending teams to investigate the crash. Canada's transportation ministry in Ontario, where Uber conducts testing, also said it was reviewing the accident.

Uber and autonomous car development company Waymo on Friday urged Congress to pass sweeping legislation to speed up the introduction of self-driving cars in the United States. Some congressional Democrats have blocked the legislation over safety concerns, and yesterday's fatality could hamper passage of the bill, congressional aides have said.

Safety advocates called for a national moratorium on all robot car testing on public roads.

"Arizona has been the wild west of robot car testing with virtually no regulations in place," said Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit consumer advocacy group. "That's why Uber and Waymo test there. When there's no sheriff in town, people get killed."

Arizona has opened its arms to firms testing self-driving vehicles as a means to economic growth and jobs. Republican Governor Doug Ducey reached out to Uber in 2016 after California regulators cracked down on the company over its failure to obtain testing permits.

Self-driving cars being tested routinely get into accidents with other vehicles. Last week, a self-driving Uber crashed with another vehicle in Pittsburgh, local news reported. There were no injuries.

A year ago, Uber grounded its self-driving cars for a few days following a crash with another car in Tempe. The company has been the subject of complaints, but the company said the cars were being driven by a human driver at the time.

Uber has said its ability to build autonomous cars is essential to its success in the rapidly changing transportation industry. The company envisages a network of autonomous cars being summoned through the Uber app that would supplement - and eventually replace - human-driven cars.

Irish Independent

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