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Fatal Uber Accident Calls Liability of Self-Driving Vehicles into Question

Laura Thomas April 2, 2018

With the introduction of self-driving vehicles in the past couple years, it was only a matter of time before a fatal accident occurred. That day came on Sunday, March 18th, 2018, when 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was struck and killed by a self-driving SUV, operated by Uber, in Tempe, Arizona. The car was reported as traveling around 38 miles per hour at the time of the tragedy. This fatal accident calls into question the safety of self-driving vehicles, as humans might no longer be to blame for the collisions. Who is liable when self-driving technology fails?

According to data collected by the Highway Institute for Highway Safety and Highway Loss Data Institute, there were 34,439 fatal motor vehicle crashes in the United States in 2016. The amount of individual deaths in these crashes is even higher, at 37,461 deaths. While self-driving vehicles could potentially reduce these numbers, with the use of various sensors and alerts, the issue of who is at fault when these vehicles cause injuries is a hotly debated topic.

In this Tempe case, there is still a chance that Herzberg was at fault for the crash. Reports indicate that Herzberg stepped into the roadway and was in the path of the vehicle when jaywalking across the road.

If the pedestrian is found to not have entered the street, who then may be to blame? Could the state of Arizona be liable?

In 2015, Arizona Governor, Doug Ducey signed an executive order instructing and encouraging organizations to take steps in supporting self-driving vehicles. This order mentioned enabling pilot programs, such as this pilot launched by Uber, and developing specific rules for the programs. As a result of the accident, the governor did suspend the testing of the technology for the time being.

Arizona certainly is not the only state to permit these autonomous vehicles though. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 33 states introduced legislation last year. This number climbs to 41 when you look at the number of states that have considered legislation since 2012. 21 states have passed legislation related to self-driving vehicles, including Illinois, Texas, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Utah.

Or is the human operator liable? In the Tempe case, the driver could be charged with vehicular manslaughter. Although the vehicle was driving itself in this instance, the operator within the vehicle could be charged for not preventing the collision before it happened.

Pinning the blame on the driver will be difficult though, as the SUV was in fully autonomous mode at the time. In this mode, the vehicle utilizes sensors, GPS, cameras, radars, and lasers to drive without needing any human operation. The vehicle takes all of this information together to create actions, such as steering the vehicle and knowing when to change speed.

Rafaela Vasquez (44) was the driver behind the wheel in the recent Tempe tragedy. Vasquez was not operating the vehicle, but claims the collision would have been nearly impossible to avoid because Herzberg came out of nowhere and he didn’t have time to react.

Uber would be another logical option to potentially take the fault for the incident and be held liable. The company has struggled to preserve its image in the wake of several lawsuits for unrelated matters, so this certainly would not help the global company. After news of the incident broke, the CEO of Uber announced the halt of the self-driving car pilot.

Finally, is the manufacturer of the vehicle to blame? Or possibly, the company that makes the software? The vehicle driven by Vasquez was a Volvo XC90. The auto-parts maker and supplier of the radar and camera in the Volvo, Aptiv, chose to disable the technology following the incident, stating they didn’t want people to assume that it was a failure of the technology supplied to Volvo. Aptiv is continuing with ongoing tests to develop the driving system technology further. Volvo’s CEO, Hakan Samuelsson, is quoted in various articles published in 2015 as stating that the company will accept full liability whenever one of their vehicles is in autonomous mode. If this holds true still, Volvo could be looking at a potential lawsuit.

Arizona police officers have reviewed the footage from both of the vehicle cameras; one that sits on the dash and faces the street and the other that faces the driver. This case is still ongoing, but the past may provide insight on how this outcome will be decided.

A year ago, a different self-driving Uber SUV was involved in a two-car accident that caused injuries. That case concluded that the driver of the other vehicle was at fault, as the evidence showed the Uber self-driving SUV was obeying the law. The circumstances and details of both Uber self-driving vehicle accidents were very different, but if the self-driving vehicle in the Tempe accident was obeying the law, Herzberg might end up with the blame.

A different outcome resulted from a case two years ago in a fatal crash involving a self-driving Tesla vehicle. Ultimately, the driver was determined to be at fault for relying on the technology because the technology was never intended to completely replace human operators. This resolution could have Vasquez worried about the liability for the tragedy.

However the case shakes out, the need for proper planning and regulations is essential for ensuring the safety of our roadways as self-driving technology evolves.