Uber's driverless car unlikely to be at fault in fatal crash: Report

Early evidence suggests the pedestrian killed by an Uber autonomous car in Arizona may have been to blame in the controversial accident earlier this week. The ride-sharing company's self-driving Volvo SUV fleet was grounded on Monday, after a collision overnight. The pedestrian was taken to hospital, but according to police died of her injuries.

At the time, the preliminary evidence was unclear as to who was responsible for the crash. While the Uber prototype did have a safety driver behind the wheel, the vehicle was operating in autonomous mode at the time. As a result, Uber froze all of its driverless car operations not only in Tempe, AZ, but in San Francisco and the other cities in which it has been experimenting with the vehicles.

Now, according to Sylvia Moir, police chief in Tempe, early evidence suggests Uber may not have been to blame in the crash. While authorities have not released the video either captured by the car's own cameras or from any city infrastructure, Moir told The SF Chronicle that, from her own viewing of the footage, "it's very clear" that any human driver would have struggled to spot the pedestrian, Elaine Herzberg.

"The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them," Moir said of the Uber car's safety driver. "His first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision." The car was recorded doing 38 mph in a 35 mph zone, the police have confirmed, and the vehicle made no attempt to brake before striking Herzberg.

After news of the accident broke, it didn't take long before the safety of Uber's driverless cars – and autonomous vehicles in general – was questioned. Arizona has made a concerted effort to position itself as a hub for self-driving research, after spotting an opportunity to raise its profile among automakers, researchers, and other companies exploring the segment. Although Uber's cars still have human operators inside, who are expected to step in should the car's systems require assistance, other vehicles in the state are already running completely without flesh & blood drivers at the wheel.

According to Moir, "it's very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode [autonomous or human-driven] based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway." While the investigation is still ongoing, Moir says she's already seen enough from the video footage to have an early opinion. "I suspect preliminarily it appears that the Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident, either," she told the Chronicle.

Nonetheless, the police force is keeping an open mind, and nobody is ruling out other possibilities at this stage. It's not the first crash for an Uber autonomous vehicle in Arizona, with an incident – also in Tempe – last year resulting in one of the company's cars toppling over on its side. However, there were no reported injuries in that case.