On U.S. roadways in 2016 there were an estimated 37,461 accident fatalities, which equates to nearly 750 per state. Many experts feel that autonomous or “driverless” vehicles will one day dramatically reduce the volume of crashes by removing the element of human error. Arizona leaders have encouraged companies such as Uber to conduct testing in the state. Recently, one of these cars struck and killed a pedestrian while operating autonomously with a “backup” driver on board. Uber has temporarily halted its testing in Arizona.
In March 2018, a self-driving Uber vehicle was involved in a collision in Tempe, Arizona. The Uber backup driver was unable to respond before the Volvo XC90 SUV hit 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, who was crossing a street with her bicycle. A representative from the local police department said that early indications suggest the car was traveling at approximately 40 miles per hour at the time of the accident. Uber officials expressed its willingness to cooperate with the authorities and released a statement saying “our hearts go out to the victim's family.” Federal investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board are examining the accident.
Arizona Welcomed Testing
The majority of self-driving development had been underway in California when Arizona officials began encouraging these companies to test on their roads. The state was promoted as a “regulation-free zone” for organizations including Lyft, Uber, and Waymo when Governor Doug Ducey signed an executive order allowing such testing as long as a backup driver is used, but that order was updated in March 2018 to allow for testing without a backup driver. Mark Mitchell, the mayor of Tempe, stated that Uber's choice to immediately suspend its testing was a “responsible step” and is eager to see investigational results on the incident.
Arizona Case Settlement
The fatal collision led both Arizona and California to indefinitely suspend driverless testing. An attorney representing the Herzberg family confirmed that a settlement agreement has been reached. This agreement was finalized in under two weeks after the incident, and the terms are undisclosed.
According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, plans are underway for testing that are to be conducted without the presence of a backup driver. Waymo, a self-driving division of Google and a California company, had been using vehicles without a driver for passenger transportation in Arizona. California companies are required to report the number of times that backup drivers have felt it was necessary to resume control of the vehicle, referred to as “disengagements.” In a recent 12-month period, Waymo vehicles traveled roughly 350,000 miles and there were about 63 disengagements. Uber's disengagement data has yet to be reported.
Potential Manufacturer Liability
How will accident liability be determined when these vehicles are truly operating autonomously in the future? If the crash is deemed to have resulted from a navigational error of the vehicle, liability could potentially rest with the self-driving manufacturer. This is assuming that the owner has satisfied the maintenance requirements. If the vehicle's system was determined to be defective, it is possible that a manufacturer may face a product liability action, such as an allegation of product design defects.
Colorado was the 17th U.S. state to implement some laws that relate to autonomous vehicles. Governor John Hickenlooper gave his approval for companies to conduct testing of self-driving cars as long as done in compliance with traffic laws. He emphasized the state's continued support of new tech development. Uber has developed a self-driving tractor-trailer that is capable of safely completing trips between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs.
Self-Driving Vehicle Outlook
We are still a few years away from reaching a point where autonomous vehicles are capable of safely operating upon our roadways. There is optimism they will be capable of greatly reducing collisions. When severe accidents occur such as the recent Arizona incident, will we see actions being brought against the state or local government for allowing real-world testing that creates risk? Those who are injured in accidents where the vehicle was navigating itself to some extent should consult with a personal injury attorney.