Uber halts self-driving cars after first pedestrian fatality

The ride-hailing company suspends its self-driving operations in the US and Canada after a woman is killed by an autonomous vehicle in Tempe, Arizona.

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3 min read
A line of Volvo XC90 crossover SUVs, modified by Uber to function as self-driving cars.

The vehicle involved in the crash was one of Uber's many Volvo XC90s, which have been modified to accept Uber's hardware and software so they function as self-driving cars.

James Martin/CNET

A woman was struck and killed by one of Uber's self-driving cars in Tempe, Arizona, late Sunday night. This is the first known fatality from an autonomous vehicle accident on a public road.

At the time of the collision, 10 p.m., a vehicle operator was behind the wheel but the car was in autonomous mode, according to Tempe police. No passengers were in the car.

"The vehicle was traveling northbound just south of Curry Road when a female walking outside of the crosswalk crossed the road from west to east when she was struck by the Uber vehicle," the Tempe police said in a statement. "She was transported to a local area hospital where she passed away from her injuries."

The police said Uber is assisting in the still-active investigation. The ride-hailing company has also confirmed that it's temporarily halted its self-driving car operations in all other cities where it's been testing its vehicles, including Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto.

"Our hearts go out to the victim's family," an Uber spokeswoman said in a statement. "We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident."

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi also tweeted his condolences on Monday morning, 

"Some incredibly sad news out of Arizona," he said. "We're thinking of the victim's family as we work with local law enforcement to understand what happened."

Watch this: Self-driving Uber kills pedestrian

Given how the woman suddenly emerged from the shadows and walked in front of the car, Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir said Uber may not have been at fault. Moir was able to look at the video feed from the cameras mounted in the car.

From viewing the videos, "it's very clear it 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," Moir said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle

Initially, the crash was thought to have been between a bicyclist and the Uber car, according to a report by TV station ABC15, which first reported the accident. But the woman was actually walking the bicycle, according to Tempe police. 

Most companies working on self-driving cars tout the vehicles as a potentially safer alternative to human drivers. And, for the most part, testing of the technology has shown the cars to be safe. However, this isn't the first time an autonomous vehicle has been involved in a collision. 

Google reported an accident with one of its self-driving cars in March 2016 and there have been at least three crashes involving Teslas in autopilot mode, one of which was fatal. Just last week, an Uber self-driving car in Pittsburgh was involved in a collision with another car. In that accident, no injuries were reported but both vehicles had serious damage. 

First published March 19 at 9:07 a.m. PT.
Update, 10:36 a.m. PT:
 Adds that the victim was a pedestrian, not a bicyclist as initially reported.
Update, 11:07 a.m. PT: Adds comment from Tempe police, Uber spokeswoman and additional background information.
Update, 12:10 p.m. PT: Adds additional background information.
Update, 3:51 p.m. PT: Adds that the crash took place at 10 p.m. Sunday, not early Monday as was initially reported.
Update, March 20 at 7:45 a.m. PT: Adds comments from the Tempe, Arizona, police chief. 

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