In the wake of the first pedestrian fatality in a self-driving crash on Sunday evening, automakers, regulators and Uber are bracing for the fallout from the incident.
Many of those stakeholders have already responded:
- Uber has grounded all self-driving cars. Toyota and self-driving startup nuTonomy have also halted testing. Others, including Ford, have no plans for pausing operations.
- State officials and advocacy groups are calling on Congress to exercise caution as it attempts to pass a bill that would regulate autonomous vehicles. But sponsors of the Senate bill, called AV START, are asking Congress to act quickly to regulate the technology to address safety requirements.
- Police in Tempe, Ariz., said preliminary results of the investigation find that Uber may not be at fault; they are expected to share more today.
- The National Transportation Safety Board has sent a team to conduct a separate investigation into the accident.
Their response matters: The reactions to the fatality are likely to set a precedent for the industry, as many companies scramble to meet previously set deadlines to launch driverless vehicles. A lack of sufficient federal regulations or consumer trust could delay the proliferation of autonomous vehicles.
It could also have a resounding effect on Uber’s own self-driving efforts.
Late Sunday evening, an Uber vehicle in Tempe, Ariz., crashed into a 49-year-old woman, Elaine Herzberg, who later died from her injuries. The car was operating in autonomous mode with a vehicle operator in the front seat.
The Tempe police department is still investigating the incident, but the chief of police, Sylvia Moir, said yesterday that preliminary analysis found that it may not have been Uber’s fault. Tempe police are expected to give more information about the investigation later today.
The National Transportation Safety Board is conducting a separate investigation into the crash and has sent a team to Arizona to look at the car’s interaction with the environment, including other cars and pedestrians.
NTSB investigators in Tempe, Arizona, examine the Uber vehicle involved in Sunday’s fatal accident. pic.twitter.com/Zoj4GrnxCT— NTSB_Newsroom (@NTSB_Newsroom) March 20, 2018
Though the investigation hasn’t been concluded, today Toyota has decided to stop all of the testing of its autonomous technology on public roads. The company wanted to give its safety drivers — the operators who are tasked with taking back control of the car when the autonomous system won’t work — time to process the incident, according to spokesperson Rick Bourgoise.
“We feel the incident in Tempe may have an emotional effect on our test drivers,” Bourgoise wrote to Recode. “This ‘timeout’ is meant to give them time to come to a sense of balance about the inherent risks of their jobs. We are monitoring the situation and plan to resume testing at an appropriate time.”
Bourgoise said giving the drivers “a few days off” will help them do their jobs without concerns.
“We’ll resume when it feels prudent,” he said.
Uber, too, has grounded all of its self-driving cars in the four cities in which they are being tested. As of the time of publication, Uber had yet to gain access to the vehicle and its data to determine whether the accident was a result of a failure on the part of the safety driver or the autonomous software. The company will not be able to determine whether to redeploy its vehicles until its team of engineers analyze the data.
City officials in Boston, Mass., have also asked companies testing autonomous vehicles in the city to pause testing. Self-driving startup nuTonomy, a Lyft partner, has temporarily stopped testing in the city accordingly, according to a spokesperson.
Other automakers, like Ford, that are operating autonomous technology on public roads have no plans to pause testing at this point, according to spokesperson Alan Hall. Ford recently launched a self-driving pilot in Miami, Fla.
GM, which is testing its vehicles in San Francisco, Calif., and Waymo, which also operates in Arizona, did not return requests for comment.
The public reaction to the incident could delay autonomous development as a whole, or at least could affect Uber’s self-driving efforts. Advocacy groups like Consumer Watchdog have already called for a national moratorium on self-driving tests.
As Uber prepares to go public in 2019, the company is working to nail down its commercial strategy for its driverless research and development efforts. Part of that strategy is to partner with automakers. But if the technology is found to be at fault in this accident, Uber may have difficulty striking new partnerships or maintaining its existing relationships. That may still be the case even if there wasn’t a failure of the technology. The public perception and reaction alone could be enough for automakers to be wary of working with Uber publicly.
Toyota, which recently announced that it would work with Uber to develop a driverless shuttle, said that, for now, the business relationship doesn’t change.
“We have zero first-hand information about the incident, and we cannot speculate on what an investigation may find,” Bourgoise said.
Daimler, which expects to leverage Uber’s ride-hail network for its own vehicles, declined to comment. Volvo — the manufacturer of the vehicle involved in the crash — said the company is “aware of the incident” in response to questions about its continued work with Uber.
On the regulatory side, Boston officials aren’t the only ones exercising caution. Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, who has previously voiced his skepticism about the self-driving bill that is being considered in the U.S. Senate, said that the crash indicated that the technology is far from ready.
“Congress must take concrete steps to strengthen the AV START Act with the kind of safeguards that will prevent future fatalities,” he said in a statement on Monday. “In our haste to enable innovation, we cannot forget basic safety.”
But the sponsors of the bill, Senators Gary Peters and John Thune, emphasized the need for Congress to move quickly to pass regulations that would create not-yet-established safety requirements for self-driving vehicles.
“Congress must move quickly to enhance oversight of self-driving vehicles by updating federal safety rules and ensuring regulators have the right tools and resources to oversee the safe testing and deployment of these emerging technologies,” Peters told Recode in a statement.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.