Questions after autonomous Volvo kills pedestrian in Arizona

After a pedestrian was killed recently by an autonomous 2017 Volvo XC90 operated by Uber in Tempe, Arizona, new questions have arisen about the safety of autonomous vehicles (AVs) and whether they are ready to drive on public roads. Perhaps the central question: Will it happen again? Other questions are these: Will the fatal accident slow down AV development, or will safety advocates push harder for more stringent regulations? How much is the vehicles’ development likely to be slowed?

 

The case is not clearcut. Certainly the pedestrian should not have stepped off a dark median strip in the middle of the block at 10 p.m. But a video shows that the person in the Volvo’s driver’s seat as a backup was distracted just before the fatal crash. It is worrisome that the SUV, which was driving around 40 mph, did not try to swerve or slow down even slightly.

 

Local authorities are still investigating, as are teams sent by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Advocates of stronger regulations of AVs point to Arizona’s hands-off approach and say the fatality shows that tighter rules are needed.

 

The Trump administration has not shown as much interest in AVs as the NHTSA administrator under President Obama, Mark Rosekind, who continues to advocate for AVs as a way to cut down on the 40,000 highway deaths a year. In Congress, the House has passed a bill exempting AVs from some of the safety regulations that now apply to all vehicles, such as the presence of a steering wheel and brakes. A similar bill passed a Senate committee, but has not yet gone before the full Senate. Both bills pre-empt state laws, but do not affect state law franchise protections for dealers, thanks to NADA.

 

In response to the Arizona accident, Uber has temporarily suspended AV deployment in all five cities where the company had AVs in North America – Pittsburgh, Phoenix, San Francisco and Toronto. Toyota has also suspended tests of AVs on public roads.

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