Uber and the autonomous driving sector at large are under close scrutiny after one of the ride sharing service's self-driving cars struck and killed a pedestrian on Sunday. However, the police chief of Tempe, Arizona, the place where the fatal accident occurred, says a preliminary investigation into the matter reveals that Uber is "likely" not at fault for what happened, and that it would have been difficult to avoid the outcome whether a human driver was in charge or a series of sensors and cameras.
To be clear, there was a human driver behind the wheel, though the self-driving Volvo SUV was in full autonomous mode when the accident happened. The vehicle was traveling 38 miles per hour in a 35 mph zone on Sunday night when a 39-year-old woman, Elaine Herzberg, stepped out from a center median and into a lane of traffic. She was pushing a bicycle with plastic shopping bags when she was fatally struck.
After viewing videos of the incident, Tempe police chief Sylvia Moir told the San Francisco Chronicle "It's very clear this would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway."
"The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them. His first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision," Moir said. "I suspect preliminary it appears that Uber would likely not be at fault in the this accident."
Moir would not rule out the potential for filing charges against the backup driver, though her comment about the difficulty in avoiding what ultimately happened based on the conditions of the moment suggests that this might be unlikely as well.
This latest incident has placed heightened scrutiny on autonomous vehicle technologies. While it is unfortunate that a pedestrian perished after being hit by a self-driving car, data shows that human drivers are far more dangerous on the road. States reported 2,660 pedestrian fatalities for the six months of 2016, and nearly 6,000 for the full year, according to a report released by the Governors Highway Safety Association. That works out to 16 pedestrian fatalities each day of the year.