Woman dies in Arizona after being hit by Uber self-driving car

TEMPE, Ariz./SAN FRANCISCO, March 19 (Reuters) - A woman crossing a street was killed by an Uber self-driving sport utility vehicle in Arizona, police said on Monday, prompting the ride services company to suspend its autonomous vehicle program.

The accident in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe dealt a potential blow not only to Uber's strategy but the eventual rollout of robot cars on public roads.

It was the first fatality from a self-driving vehicle, which are being tested around the globe in a high-profile race by global automakers and tech companies expecting that autonomous vehicles will transform transportation and the ride services business.

The vehicle was in autonomous mode with an operator behind the wheel at the time of the accident, which occurred overnight Sunday to Monday, Tempe police said.

"The vehicle was traveling northbound ... when a female walking outside of the crosswalk crossed the road from west to east when she was struck by the Uber vehicle," police said in a statement.

Police identified the victim as Elaine Herzberg, 49. Herzberg later died from her injuries in a hospital, police said.

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

Tempe is 11 miles (18 km) east of Phoenix.

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An Uber Technologies Inc spokesman said the company was suspending North American tests of its self-driving vehicles. In a tweet, Uber expressed its condolences and said the San Francisco-based company was fully cooperating with authorities.

Volvo confirmed the vehicle was a Volvo XC90, which Uber has been using special versions of in its testing. Russell Datz, a spokesman for the automaker, said the autonomous technology was not made by Volvo.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said they were sending teams to investigate the crash. NHTSA also said it was in contact with Volvo. The Swedish car brand is owned by China's Geely.

In Canada, the Ministry of Transportation in Canada’s Ontario province, which is overseeing Uber’s on-road autonomous testing in Toronto, said it was reviewing the accident.

On Friday, Alphabet Inc's self-driving unit Waymo and Uber urged Congress to pass sweeping legislation to speed the introduction of self-driving cars into the United States. Some congressional Democrats have blocked the legislation over safety concerns, and Monday's fatality could hamper the quick passage of the bill, congressional aides said Monday.

"This is a wake-up call to the entire AV industry and government to put a high priority on safety," tweeted former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

 

Senator John Thune, who heads the Senate Commerce Committee, and has been urging Congress to pass sweeping legislation to speed self-driving cars to U.S. roads, said in a statement the accident "underscores the need to adopt laws and policies tailored for self-driving vehicles."

"Congress should act to update rules, direct manufacturers to address safety requirements, and enhance the technical expertise of regulators," Thune said.

Fallout from the crash "will likely prove negative for all auto makers and suppliers with aspirations in autonomous driving, Buckingham Research Group analyst Glenn Chin wrote in a client note. "A human fatality is likely to spur increased public and regulatory scrutiny of AVs around a process that is admittedly quite lax in the U.S."

Arizona has opened its arms to companies testing self-driving vehicles as a means to economic growth and jobs. Republican Governor Doug Ducey signed an executive order in 2015 allowing for the testing of such vehicles on Arizona streets and reached out to Uber a year later after California regulators cracked down on the company over its failure to obtain testing permits.

ESSENTIAL TO UBER'S SUCCESS

Uber is one of many technology companies and automakers, including Waymo and General Motors Co's Cruise division, racing to ready self-driving cars for public use in coming years.

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

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A fleet of Uber's Ford Fusion self driving cars are shown during a demonstration of self-driving automotive technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. September 13, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk
A fleet of Uber's Ford Fusion self driving cars are shown during a demonstration of self-driving automotive technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. September 13, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk
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Uber has logged 2 million self-driving miles through December. The company has more than 100 autonomous cars testing on the roads of the greater Phoenix area, the company's prime testing ground due to the state's loose regulations and hospitable weather. Rain, snow and ice are particularly challenging for autonomous cars.

Concerns over the safety of autonomous vehicles flared after a July 2016 fatality involving a Tesla Inc automobile. The car involved in that accident featured a partially autonomous system that required human supervision. Uber's vehicle, on the other hand, is considered a full self-driving vehicle where a human is not needed at the wheel.

Safety regulators later determined Tesla was not at fault in that accident.

Even when not regulated by state law, companies testing autonomous vehicles still sometimes place a driver at the wheel to monitor the car and take over in case of need.

Uber has weathered a series of crises, including sexual harassment claims, controversy over its use of a tracking tool to avoid government officials, and a high-profile lawsuit brought by competitor Waymo alleging theft of self-driving trade secrets. It settled that lawsuit last month, with Uber paying $245 million of its own shares to Waymo.

That settlement was largely seen as a means for Uber to resume work on autonomous cars without the distraction of litigation, as it hustles to catch up with Waymo, which is widely seen as having the most advanced cars in the industry. 

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