Uber crash raises question: How do self-driving cars deal with the other guys on the road? – Washington Post

Posted: Saturday, March 25, 2017

One of Uber’s self-driving SUVs was left turned on its side with its windows smashed after colliding with another vehicle in Tempe, Ariz.; once again raising questions about the safety of autonomous driving technology and how it will interact with human drivers on the road.

Police were called to a crash at approximately 6:25 p.m. Friday to find that the Uber SUV had been hit when another vehicle failed to yield, according to the Tempe Police Department. No serious injuries were reported.

There was a person behind the wheel at the time of the accident, but an Uber spokeswoman said the vehicle was in self-driving mode and that there were no backseat riders. The company’s self-driving fleet has been taken off the roads in Arizona while the company investigates the crash.

The crash comes as Uber grapples with a wide range of crises. Among them, several Uber employees have been accused of stealing intellectual property from Waymo, Google’s self-driving car company, and using it as the basis for Uber’s self-driving technology. The outcome of that legal fight could affect Uber’s future significantly.

The crash is likely to raise questions about the safety of autonomous driving technology as it plays a more prominent role on U.S. roads. Automobile and technology companies alike are dumping billions of dollars into the technology with the idea that one day our cars will no longer need human pilots.

But that future is still far off. In the meantime, vehicles equipped with self-driving capabilities will share the road with human motorists. That will put autonomous vehicles in situations that may seem simple but are actually difficult to navigate, such as what to do when another vehicle honks its horn.

It also remains unclear to what extent self-driving cars will be regulated by federal and state governments. Last year, the Transportation Department released a policy paper outlining 15 guidelines for developers of self-driving cars. In states across the country, legislators are debating how to allow the vehicles to be tested on functioning streets without endangering passengers and other drivers.

It’s a push and pull between freewheeling innovation and regulatory oversight that many new technologies endure, but the stakes may be heightened when lives are at stake. Indeed, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have already begun debate about public tolerance for injuries and deaths as a result of self-driving cars.

More than 35,000 people in the United States were killed in motor vehicle accidents in 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The majority of those are the result of human error, and technology enthusiasts believe that number will be reduced significantly as more self-driving vehicles get on the road.

Industry observers expect media coverage of and officials’ response to crashes involving self-driving vehicles will shape public perception of their safety. A fatal car collision involving a Tesla Model S received widespread attention because the vehicle was in autopilot mode at the time, though a government investigation later found there were no defects in the software.

Arizona is one of a growing number of states that allow self-driving vehicles to be tested on public roads. Its permitting requirements are also more lenient than in neighboring California, which previously barred Uber from its roads for failing to obtain the proper permits. The company now has cars on the road in San Francisco, but they do not pick up passengers, according to CNET.

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