Uber Criticized For Self-Driving Crash Fatality

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A Brief History

In March 2009, Uber was founded as UberCab by Garrett Camp, a computer programmer and the co-founder of StumbleUpon, and Travis Kalanick, who had sold his Red Swoosh startup for $19 million in 2007.  With the advent of self-driving technology in the market, it is no wonder that ride-hailing companies, like Uber, have decided to use self-driving cars for their transportation services. They adopt modern innovations to help people get from point A to point B, order food easily and quickly, and have access to seamless freight-booking solutions, but despite Uber’s intention to transform the transportation industry, the company has become controversial because of its self-driving crash fatality record in Tempe, Arizona. Therefore, certain government agencies, particularly the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, are compelled to investigate Uber Technologies, Inc. for its alleged ineffective safe driving culture. 

In order to understand this debatable topic involving Uber’s self-driving vehicles, continue reading this article.

Digging Deeper

Uber Self-Driving Cars: Everything You Need To Know

Uber autonomous vehicle Volvo XC90 in San Francisco.  Photograph by Dllu.

In recent years, Uber has been known as a ride service that is ultimately appealing to prospective drivers as well as urban passengers. Due to its popularity in America, the company has set its focus on replacing human drivers by using self-driving cars. 

In February 2015, Uber announced its plan to provide a fleet of autonomous cars on the public streets in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and later in Arizona after the invitation of Arizona Governor Doug Ducey to test its vehicles in the state. For the record, Uber initially launched 20 Ford Fusions, which were equipped with seven lasers, 20 cameras, GPS, radar, and technology that determines the distance reached by the lasers to enable cars to see the action surrounding them. 

Following the launching of Ford Fusions, the company introduced Volvo XC90, which became the vehicle of choice in Pittsburgh. It even took advantage of the freedom given by Pittsburgh to test the cars in full strength until the relationship between the state and Uber turned sour when the latter began charging fees for self-driving car rides around the area. 

In December 2016, Uber started to test 16 autonomous cars in San Francisco. Still, the California Department of Motor Vehicles ordered the revocation of the company’s registration for the vehicles due to its refusal to secure a special permit to register them as test cars; however, Uber began testing its automated cars in Arizona, specifically in the streets of Tempe, where a car crash that killed a pedestrian named Elaine Herzberg happened in March 2018. At the time of the accident, the car involved was in an autonomous mode. Even if there was a human driver inside, they were not controlling the vehicle when the crash occurred. 

This fatal accident has put Uber in a bad light for testing self-driving vehicles in some states in America. 

Uber Self-Driving Cars: Its Involvement In A Crash Fatality

Because of the fatal accident involving Uber’s self-driving cars that happened in Arizona in March 2018, the company has suspended its self-driving tests in Tempe, Arizona, Toronto, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh. This was after the government authorities criticized them about their lapses in the testing of their autonomous cars. In fact, the issue has become a public concern as some of the accident’s repercussions might impact the recovery of the victim. 

For instance, personal insurance policies do not cover accidents that occur while the driver is driving for Uber. As such, the aggrieved party might end up dealing with financial difficulties following the crash; hence, the services of an experienced attorney might be essential. 

Given Uber’s first fatality case involving its automated cars along with the accident’s possible financial repercussions, the U.S National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Robert Sumwalt started its investigation and provided an assessment of Uber’s approach to safety involving self-driving. With the continuous sifting through the details of the crash, the Board has come up with the following findings: 

  • The failure of the operator to keep track of the driving environment was the probable cause of the accident because of the distraction the operator had throughout the ride.
  • The pedestrian victim’s act of crossing outside a crosswalk as well as the Arizona Department of Transportation’s short lapses of self-driving car testing contributed to the consummation of the accident.
  • The safety risk assessment procedures of the Uber company were insufficient, and it also lacked a safety manager who would be responsible for enforcing the risk assessment procedures involving the testing of self-driving cars. 
  • The ride-hailing company didn’t also have effective monitoring of vehicle operators. Although there was a camera inside the vehicle, it still lacked the initiative to ensure the behavior of the operator and prevent them from violating the company policies, including the use of mobile phones during trips. This is probably one of the reasons why the company or the vehicle operator could be held liable for wrongful death lawsuits in Arizona. 
  • Uber also failed to create a system that would make sure that safety drivers would not be overly complacent about the automation brought by the car. 
  • The automated vehicles of Uber were not appropriately programmed in terms of its response to any person crossing the road outside the crosswalks. 
  • The state of Arizona’s failure to create policies regarding the regulation of self-driving vehicles on the public streets also contributed to the crash. 

On the other hand, the Board also issued the following recommendations to ensure the strict implementation of self-driving car testing on public roads by transportation companies, including Uber:

  • The Board called the attention of developers and manufacturers of autonomous cars to strictly assess their safety procedures before the testing on the public streets. Also, it’s recommended the non-use of test cars on the road until the regulators will give their approval. 
  • The Board encouraged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to require companies who are testing self-driving cars to comply and submit a safety assessment report to the agency. The designated agency will then see to it that the report includes the enforcement of appropriate safeguards. 
  • Since a car accident can impact public confidence, the Board suggested the involvement of the public in the acceptance or rejection of automated driving systems and their testing to avoid fatalities on the roads. 
  • Above all, the Board urged all the companies that will perform self-driving car testing on public streets should study about the fatal crash to avoid accidents in the future. 

Following the fatal accident involving Uber’s vehicles, its full adoption of the self-driving car program might be in the indeterminate state. Studies are still going on, and tests are suspended at present. 

Lastly, with Arizona Governor’s suspension of Uber’s authority to conduct self-driving tests in the state, there might be no word as to when they can resume their testing in the future.  

Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever used Uber?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Isaac, Mike.  Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber.  W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by freestocks-photos, is licensed under the Pixabay License.


About Author

Abdul Alhazred

“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked. "Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad." "How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice. "You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland