Pedestrian Safety Could Be a Concern in a World of Self-Driving Vehicles
Pedestrian Safety Could Be a Concern in a World of Self-Driving Vehicles

Car-for-hire service Uber has been testing self-driving cars for a few years in some U.S. cities, including Tempe, Ariz. But Arizona’s governor issued an order prohibiting Uber from operating self-driving cars after a March accident that killed a pedestrian.

Tempe police released video of the accident, captured by the Uber vehicle’s forward-facing camera. The video shows an empty road until the pedestrian enters the frame. Inside the car was an Uber “developmental vehicle operator” – an employee who is supposed to take command of the car in an emergency. But footage from the car’s dash camera showed that the backup operator was looking down at the time of the crash.

The Tempe crash raises numerous questions about the safety of self-driving cars, chiefly: Why didn’t the car “see” the pedestrian as she entered the roadway, and to what extent are backup operators liable if a car strikes a pedestrian?

How Self-Driving Cars Sense Objects

Self-driving cars use lidar – a system of sensors that emits pulses of light to detect objects. Uber equipped its pilot fleet of self-driving Ford Fusions with seven lidar sensors; but when it retired the Fords in favor of Volvo SUVS, it equipped the new vehicles with only one roof-mounted lidar sensor. According to a Reuters report, that change created a blind spot around the entire vehicle, hindering the car’s ability to detect pedestrians.

The Need for More Testing

Uber began testing self-driving cars in Scottsdale, Ariz., in December 2016. The cars traveled only on Scottsdale Road, a straight north-south thoroughfare. Uber performance reports obtained by BuzzFeed News revealed that in one week during March 2017, the cars traveled an average of 0.67 miles without the backup driver taking control, and the cars averaged only 2 miles without a what Uber called a “bad experience” (such as the car braking too hard).

If Uber self-driving cars can’t travel a straight roadway without driver assistance, they are likely not ready for curvy roads or multi-street intersections. Furthermore, Scottsdale offers nearly ideal weather year-round. One has to wonder how self-driving cars would perform on icy or snowy roads.

Challenges for Backup Operators

CityLab, a publication of The Atlantic Monthly group, published a piece in which two former backup drivers for Uber offered insights about their jobs. They both said drivers were rushed into piloting the self-driving cars, even before the cars’ technology was fully developed. The drivers described exhausting work conditions, in which they were expected to be alert behind the wheel for eight to 10 hours, with only one 30-minute break, traveling the same loop over and over so the cars could “learn” routes. Each vehicle used to have two operators, with one taking notes and helping keep an eye out for pedestrians. But in late 2017, Uber decided to use only solo operators, and those drivers weren’t transporting passengers, so they had no human interaction during those long shifts.

One of the drivers told CityLab that the cars might not need the operator to take over for hours at a time, so it’s easy to become distracted. Of the fatal Tempe crash, one driver said, “We saw this coming.”

The Evans Law Firm has years of experience representing victims of vehicle crashes, and we are prepared to take on cases involving self-driving vehicles. If you need help with a personal injury vehicle accident, contact our office today for your free case consultation.