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Fatal Uber crash 'highlights challenges of autonomous cars alongside human drivers'

Joseph Flaig

An autonomous Uber taxi (Credit: Uber)
An autonomous Uber taxi (Credit: Uber)

The tragic death of a pedestrian hit by a self-driving Uber has highlighted the many challenges of introducing autonomous cars alongside human-operated vehicles, an expert has said.

A “transition period” to fully autonomous cars operating safely on the roads could take several more decades, said Jenifer Baxter, head of engineering at the IMechE.

The comments came after a pedestrian, named as Elaine Herzberg, became the first person to die after being hit by an autonomous vehicle. The car, part of a now-suspended trial of self-driving taxis, reportedly had a “safety driver” behind the wheel but was travelling autonomously at 40mph at the time of the crash on Sunday in Arizona.  

“This tragic event serves to draw attention to the challenges of incorporating autonomous vehicles into an incumbent system operating with manned vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians and other road users,” said Baxter. She highlighted a 2016 IMechE case study, which called for public consultations, new regulations and driver training before automated cars become fully legal.

“Engineers will need to create an environment where connected autonomous vehicles can operate safely with or without an operator during the transition period to a fully autonomous vehicle system,” she said. “This transition period could last for several decades.”

One of the main arguments for the widespread introduction of self-driving cars is they will remove human error from driving, potentially dramatically reducing the number of crashes on the road.

The National Transportation Safety Board in the US is investigating the collision between Uber’s modified Volvo SUV and Herzberg. The ride-hailing firm is right to suspend autonomous trials until the causes of the accident are fully understood, Baxter said.  

“Our hearts go out to the victim’s family,” Uber wrote on Twitter. “We’re fully cooperating with @TempePolice and local authorities as they investigate this incident.”

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