Uber halts self-driving car tests after death

Ride-hailing service provider, Uber is suspending self-driving car trials in all North American cities after a fatal accident on Sunday night.

A 49-year-old woman was hit and killed as she crossed the street by one of Uber’s Volvo XC90s which, though a human operator was behind the wheel, was operating in autonomous mode in Tempe, Arizona.

While self-driving cars have been involved in multiple accidents, it is said to be the first time an autonomous car has been involved in a fatal collision.

Anthony Foxx, who served as US Secretary of Transportation under former President Barack Obama, said the accident was a “wake up call to the entire [autonomous vehicle] industry and government to put a high priority on safety.”

Consumer Watchdog, a lobby group that has warned of the risks of autonomous cars, has called for a moratorium of such vehicles on public roads, describing the accident as a “tragedy we have been fighting years to prevent.

“We hope our calls for real regulation of driverless cars will be taken seriously going forward by Silicon Valley and the Trump Administration,” the group wrote on Twitter.

However, Ian Christensen, the head of iMove — an Australian research centre dedicated to technology and transport, said that regulations could be restricting the ability of autonomous vehicles to avoid incidents like this.

“All cars with automation have more capability than they're currently allowed to deploy,” he said. “There is no question of that. In that respect, they're held back by the regulatory environment.”

Uber started testing driverless cars in Pittsburgh in 2016. The ride-hailing firm has also been testing driverless cars in San Francisco, Toronto and Phoenix.

The death comes a year after Uber took its self-driving cars off the road following an accident that left a Volvo SUV on its side in Arizona. The programme was later reinstated.

Carla Bailo, president and chief executive of the Center for Automotive Research, said more information about how the crash occurred is necessary before officials can say what went wrong and how the self-driving system should be improved.

She also said the fatality should be considered in the context of all accidents as more than 37,000 people, including almost 6,000 pedestrians, died in traffic accidents in the US in 2016, according to the US Department of Transportation.

“We need to be fair and look at all the data,” she said. “But I don't think anybody is taking this lightly. By far safety is the first concern.”

Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell said he supports autonomous car tests because of the technology’s potential. He also praised Uber’s decision to suspend the programme as “responsible”.

“Our city leadership and Tempe Police will pursue any and all answers to what happened in order to ensure safety moving forward,” he said.