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The fatal accident involving an Uber Technologies Inc. autonomous vehicle in Arizona is leading to new questions about the emerging form of transportation, sources say.
While early indications suggest that the autonomous vehicle involved in the incident may not be at fault, the accident nonetheless raises certain issues about the nascent technology.
The fatal March 18 accident involving an Uber-operated Volvo XC 90 outfitted with autonomous technologies is still being investigated. The incident occurred at night outside a crosswalk, according to news reports.
It is still too early to draw any conclusions about the cause of the incident or the technology, according to Justin Morgan, human factors scientist with Forensic Engineering Technologies L.L.C. based in Lake Mary, Florida.
“We right now have a video and an understanding of where the accident occurred,” Mr. Morgan said. “The video we’re seeing is not reflective of what the human eye would have seen, so we have to be very cautious in using this video to reach any kind of conclusion.”
“When you look at the factors that played into this crash, it was a night-time collision, which increases the difficulty for a human to detect a pedestrian, and an unexpected location — a landscaped median outside of a crosswalk, which decreases the likelihood of a successful detection,” Mr. Morgan said.
Vehicles have a duty of care to avoid pedestrians, even if the pedestrian is jaywalking, according to Hilary Rowen, senior counsel with Clyde & Co in San Francisco and an observer to the Uniform Law Commission Drafting Committee on Highly Automated Vehicles for the American Bar Association Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section.
“Pedestrians also have a duty of care to avoid placing themselves in the way of oncoming vehicles,” Ms. Rowen said, adding that the initial police report found that the accident was unavoidable, suggesting that the autonomous vehicle would not be at fault using the test for a human driver.
One issue, however, is that autonomous vehicles are ultimately intended to enhance transportation safety, and one of the questions is likely to be why the car’s sensors did not detect the pedestrian.
“It is, however, the kind of scenario we would expect an automated driving system to be able to detect. Given the vehicle had LiDAR, radar, as well as a machine vision system, we would expect an automated driving system to be able to detect a pedestrian in this scenario,” Mr. Morgan said. “While it’s unfortunate that it did not, it’s too early to say exactly why the sensors and algorithms failed to detect the pedestrian.”
“Is this a situation where a more sophisticated set of sensors or software could have avoided the accident, or is this simply a situation where the laws of physics are the laws of physics and heavy objects moving at some speed simply can’t brake in time no matter how good the sensors are?” Ms. Rowen said.
Further development should enable improvements and increase safety, sources said.
“Automation provides us the promise of a system that’s monitoring the entire surroundings of the vehicle constantly and would be able to have vigilance a human could not,” Mr. Morgan said. “This is the type of scenario that automation should be able to help us with in the future.”
“Despite the fact that we have now unfortunately seen the first autonomous vehicle crashes and the first AV fatality, we believe that there are potential safety benefits of this technology,” said Mike Scrudato, Princeton, New Jersey-based senior vice president and strategic innovation leader, at Munich Reinsurance America Inc. “We need to continue to look at how testing, training and technology need to improve to help avoid future incidents and help to increase road safety.”
Autonomous vehicles record a variety of data during operation, including video. The video should help investigators understand the crash, sources said.
“The video and other data recording devices, the ongoing record the vehicle maintains, are clearly going to be extremely valuable for accident reconstruction and ultimately for insurance liability purposes,” Ms. Rowen said.
“It’s always helpful to have video; that makes the process of reconstructing the accident that much more reliable,” Mr. Morgan said. “Given the differences between the video and the human eye, however, we need other sources of data to understand exactly what this video is showing us.”
The car’s ability to record, however, and the data existence raise questions of ownership and access.
“The question of who owns the data and who can have access to the data is an issue into which a lot of legal thought is going,” Ms. Rowen said. “This is an area that is likely to be worked out through some combination of contract and legislation.”
The vehicle also records data about location, which raises privacy issues, Ms. Rowen said.
The advent of autonomous driving technology has also raised many questions for the insurance sector in terms of how to insure the vehicles.
This is also not the first fatal incident in which autonomous driving technology played a role. A fatal crash involving a Tesla vehicle in which the driver had engaged the vehicle’s Autopilot system, occurred on May 7, 2016, in Williston, Florida.
Progress in the race among established and new car manufacturers to field autonomous vehicles is challenging insurers trying to keep pace with developments in transportation.