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Example of the Volvo-based automated-driving test vehicle involved in a mid-March accident in Arizona that killed a pedestrian who initial evidence suggested stepped into the vehicle's path (image: Uber).

Uber, Toyota suspend AV testing after Arizona fatality

In the immediate aftermath of what is believed to be the first fatal collision between an autonomous vehicle (AV) and a pedestrian, Uber suspended public-road testing of its autonomous-vehicle fleet. Not long after, Toyota confirmed in a response from Japan that it also was temporarily halting testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads in the United States.

The incident reverberated through the automotive and technology industries as they await details from the accident investigation in Tempe, Arizona, where an Uber autonomous test vehicle struck and killed a woman walking a bicycle across a road. A human driver was in the Uber vehicle as Arizona law dictates but apparently was unable to override the autonomous-driving system in time to avoid the collision. Investigating bodies included Tempe police, the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. and the National Transportation Safety Board.

Early reports cited the Tempe police chief Sylvia Moir as saying video evidence extracted from the front-facing camera made it appear the Uber vehicle “would likely not be at fault in this accident,” but it seemed inevitable the incident would impact the evolving AV sector—and public perception of autonomous-driving technology.

Initial reports appeared to confirm that the pedestrian stepped abruptly and without warning into the path of Uber’s autonomous Volvo XC90. “It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway,” Moir was quoted as adding the day after the incident.

Sam Abuelsamid, senior research analyst for mobility research service at Navigant Research, said the accident likely won’t slow AV development and engineering—but may prompt more scrutiny regarding autonomous vehicles’ readiness for public-road testing.

I don’t think this will have an impact on the overall pace of development of AVs but I think the more responsible companies will go back and revisit the policies for their “safety drivers, he said. “This incident may also be an indicator of the folly of relying on human drivers to take over from automation in SAE Level 2 or 3 systems.”

Another analyst envisions a setback for the perception of AV safety. Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, told Bloomberg, “It will set consumer confidence in the technology back years, if not decades.”

Toyota also takes action

Shortly after the Arizona incident, Toyota announced its U.S.-based Toyota Research Institute would suspend all public-road AV testing of its “Chauffer” SAE Level 4 system.

"We cannot speculate on the cause of the incident or what it may mean to the automated driving industry going forward. Because we feel the incident may have an emotional effect on our test drivers, we have decided to temporarily pause our Chauffeur mode testing on public roads,” Toyota said in a statement.

“Ideally, in a different political climate, this would be the time for NHTSA to pause or slow public road testing in autonomous mode and develop some performance standards for the perception systems on these vehicles,” Navigant’s Abuelsamid suggested. “Those standards need to be testable but not technology-specific—for example be able to detect a pedestrian or a cyclist at a certain distance in various lighting conditions. These standards would form the basis of a federal motor vehicle safety standard. We already require human drivers to take a vision test when getting a license—this would be the technological equivalent. Any vehicle not able to pass these baseline requirements wouldn’t be allowed to test in autonomous mode on public roads.”

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