Safety Concerns Rise After Self-Driving Car Kills Pedestrian

A self-driving Uber that hit and killed a woman in Arizona last week has raised new concerns about autonomous vehicles.

The accident happened on a darkened roadway with an Uber safety driver behind the wheel. The company says the car’s sensors detected the pedestrian crossing in front of the vehicle less than a second before she was struck. The driver also saw her too late to stop.

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With carmakers and independent companies including Google racing to develop autonomous vehicles, the crash has brought calls for the industry to slow down.

“The key question is: could a human driver have avoided it?” said Hani Mahmassani, director of the Northwestern University Transportation Center and a professor of engineering. “The experts are still weighing in, and we should wait for the investigation. My initial view is that a human driver probably could not have reacted sufficiently fast enough, particularly in that environment where you don’t expect something like that to happen.”

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, and Uber has suspended testing of its autonomous cars. While the fatality has raised inevitable and important safety questions, Mahmassani says it’s important to keep in mind that autonomous cars are still relatively new and their technology is a long way from being perfected.

“What looks bad in this case is that the human monitor wasn’t paying attention,” Mahmassani said. “The driver should be alert.”

Mahmassani joins us in discussion.

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