Uber suspends autonomous vehicle testing after bicyclist is killed

The incident happened in Tempe, Ariz., and involved a Volvo XC90.

An autonomously-driven Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz., late Sunday evening. A statement from local police indicates that the woman was crossing the street outside of a crosswalk. A bicycle was present at the accident scene, according to local news station ABC 15, but it's not believed that the bike was being ridden at the time of the incident.

The deceased woman has been identified as 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg. She was rushed to a nearby hospital and was pronounced dead shortly after arriving. A human occupant was in the self-driven Volvo SUV at the time of the accident but was not in control of the vehicle. The incident took place around 10 pm, according to the local police. Tempe authorities say the the vehicle was traveling northbound on Curry Road near Mill Avenue. There were no other passengers in the vehicle at the time of the incident.

Arizona is one of the few places in the United States where it's legal to test autonomous vehicles without keeping a human in the driver's seat to take over when necessary. Waymo, the autonomous vehicle technology company under Google's Alphabet umbrella, is already testing self-driving vehicles in Arizona that do not have a human driver as a safety net.

California has announced plans to allow autonomous vehicle testing without human intervention starting in April of this year. Other states are likely to follow suit as autonomous vehicle testing continues to move forward at a fever pace in the United States. One main area on which researchers must focus as long as self-driving cars share the road with human drivers is how complex computer systems will respond to potentially erratic and unpredictable human behavior.

Uber, for its part, says it is fully cooperating with local authorities. Sarah Abboud, a spokeswoman for Uber, said in a statement: "Our hearts go out to the victim's family. We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident."

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in a tweet that the company will continue to work "with local law enforcement to understand what happened." For now, Uber is suspending all autonomous vehicle testing in Tempe, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Toronto.

Patrick Ptak, a spokesperson for Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), said, "safety is a top priority" for the state, but did not address questions about any changes this fatality may mean for Arizona's autonomous vehicle testing legislation.

We also reached out to Volvo for a statement since one of their autonomous XC90s was involved. The company's response was as follows: "We are aware of the incident and our thoughts are with the family of the woman involved. We are aware that Uber is cooperating with local authorities in their investigation." Bloomberg reports that this is likely the first fatality involving a self-driving vehicle in the United States.

This is the second time an autonomous Uber vehicle has been involved in an accident in Arizona. Last year, a different Volvo XC90 sport utility vehicle ended up on its side after colliding with another vehicle that failed to yield. Uber did not admit fault in that incident. As with this most recent accident, Uber's vehicle had been in self-driving mode with a human available to take over piloting duties.

There are obvious legal ramifications regarding autonomous vehicles that a fatal accident such as this will likely influence. There were around 40,000 deaths on American roads last year, and experts hope that autonomous vehicle technology can reduce the number of traffic fatalities in the future. Recent polls indicate that consumers remain concerned about self-driving automobile technology.

A spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board said that the agency has opened an investigation into this incident and has sent a team of researchers to Tempe.

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