More than a week after one of Uber’s self-driving cars struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona, government officials and technology firms have begun reconsidering their rapid deployment of some autonomous technology amid fears it’s not ready for public testing.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) banned Uber’s self-driving cars from the state’s roads Monday, saying he was “very disturbed” by police video showing one of the company’s self-driving cars striking and killing a pedestrian in Tempe last week. The ban was limited to Uber, but it held special significance because Ducey had previously welcomed Uber’s testing in the state by pitting Arizona’s comparatively relaxed regulatory framework against neighboring California’s.
Separately, Uber agreed to discontinue testing its autonomous vehicles in California, according to a letter from the state Department of Motor Vehicles to the company, citing conversations with company executives. Uber’s permit to test its vehicles in the state expires March 31, and the company has no immediate plans to renew it, the letter said.
“Any application for a new permit will need to address any follow-up analysis of investigations from the recent crash in Arizona and may also require a meeting with the department,” wrote Brian G. Soublet, deputy director and chief counsel for the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
An Uber spokeswoman said Tuesday that the company “decided to not reapply for a California DMV permit with the understanding that our self-driving vehicles would not operate on public roads in the immediate future.”
In his letter to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi on Monday, Ducey said he was suspending the company’s self-driving tests until further notice, calling the crash video “disturbing and alarming” and saying that it “raises many questions about the ability of Uber to continue testing in Arizona.” Uber had already voluntarily suspended autonomous-vehicle testing across North America in the wake of the crash.
Meanwhile, computer-chip-maker Nvidia suspended its autonomous-vehicle tests Tuesday amid the investigations into the Uber crash, Nvidia spokesman Fazel Adabi said. Nvidia supplies computing technology for Uber’s self-driving cars, including for the same model involved in last week’s crash, and is testing self-driving cars in California and New Jersey, among other locations.
And Boston reinstated testing privileges for self-driving start-ups nuTonomy and Optimus Ride vehicles this week after conducting a safety review in the aftermath of the Uber crash and finding those companies were in compliance with city standards. Through a partnership with Lyft, nuTonomy self-driving vehicles make ride-hailing trips in parts of Boston, though there is always a backup driver.
Video released last week by Tempe police graphically illustrated how Uber’s self-driving Volvo XC90 and backup driver failed to protect 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg as she walked her bike across a road at about 10:30 p.m.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are investigating the crash, along with Tempe police.
The CEO of Waymo, formerly Google’s self-driving-vehicle unit, said over the weekend that he is confident its cars would have been able to handle the situation faced by the self-driving Uber. At a lunchtime roundtable with reporters in Washington on Tuesday, Lyft President John Zimmer said that the vehicle and backup driver should have been able to prevent the crash, based on the sequence of events in the video.
“It did look like both the tech and the driver could have or should have prevented that,” he said, before adding, “I don’t know all the details.”
Zimmer laid out the quandary facing supporters and those deploying autonomous vehicles: Self-driving technology brings the promise of safer roads, but it requires technological precision to deploy and a good-faith agreement that companies take no “shortcuts” to ensure it is safe.
“The tragedy in Arizona is something that I think should give everyone pause,” he said. “But you also have to remember the goal of autonomy — where you have about a hundred people dying every day from vehicle-related accidents — and the goal I think is to take that to zero.”
He worried about the effects of potential self-inflicted delays.
“If it took autonomous one day more because of this to get to market, that could be a hundred people’s lives that are at risk,” he said. “No one should take shortcuts, and no one should put out technology before it’s ready.”
The reactions from government officials and technology executives made clear the chilling impact from the March 18 Uber crash, which was the first in testing of autonomous vehicles to claim the life of a pedestrian. It was unclear, however, if the fallout would be lasting or stretch beyond Uber and its partners.
“Improving public safety has always been the emphasis of Arizona’s approach to autonomous-vehicle testing, and my expectation is that public safety is also the top priority for all who operate this technology in the state of Arizona,” Ducey told Khosrowshahi in his letter. “The incident that took place on March 18 is an unquestionable failure to comply with this expectation.”
A spokesman for the governor said the ban would last indefinitely.
“We want to see the results of the pending investigations before making any further decisions,” the spokesman said. Pressed on why Uber was the only company whose self-driving operations were ordered suspended, the spokesman, Patrick Ptak, said it was because “there are currently three investigations into the company’s accident and technology.”
Several technology firms and automakers are testing self-driving vehicles in Arizona, which does not require special permits.
Ptak pushed back against the notion that the fatality would have been prevented if that state had stricter regulations.
“It’s important to note that the regulations in other states where this is allowed, like California, would not have prevented this accident,” Ptak said. “And [Ducey’s] action yesterday is the strongest taken by any state or governor to date that we are aware of.”
Uber did not directly address questions about the mandatory suspension but noted in a statement that it had already halted its pilot on its own.
“We proactively suspended self-driving operations in all cities immediately following the tragic incident last week,” an Uber spokeswoman said. “We continue to help investigators in any way we can, and we’ll keep a dialogue open with the governor’s office to address any concerns they have.”
In his Twitter thread Tuesday, the governor explained his standards for operating in the state.
“We will hold companies accountable,” Ducey tweeted. “We will enforce the law. We will take strong action against any company or operator that does not demonstrate they are ready for primetime. If you’re going to operate in Arizona; you will have to meet these standards.”
His message Tuesday stood in stark contrast to his courtship of Uber in late 2016.
“Arizona welcomes Uber self-driving cars with open arms and wide open roads,” Ducey said then. “While California puts the brakes on innovation and change with more bureaucracy and more regulation, Arizona is paving the way for new technology and new businesses. … California may not want you, but we do.”
In the aftermath of the crash, observers also turned their attention to NHTSA’s voluntary safety reporting for those deploying autonomous vehicles. At the time of the crash, Uber had yet to explain to federal regulators how it equips and programs its vehicles to safely operate on public roads. Waymo submitted a 43-page safety report to the U.S. Department of Transportation in October, providing the most comprehensive look at the company’s efforts to train its cars to operate safety.
Valerie Jarrett, formerly senior adviser to President Barack Obama who now serves on the Lyft board, said she expects federal oversight to increase as a result of the crash.
“We probably are going to see the federal government step in,” she said. “It’s likely. I think our approach is we want to work with them.”
Lyft spokesman Adrian Durbin said the company has not submitted its safety letter to NHTSA. The company said, however, that it is not testing its autonomous vehicles on the road.