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How a Self-Driving Uber Killed a Pedestrian in Arizona

Posted March 20, 2018 4:50 p.m. EDT

A woman was struck and killed Sunday night by an autonomous car operated by Uber in Tempe, Arizona. It was believed to be the first pedestrian death associated with self-driving technology.

What We Know About the Accident

The car, a Volvo XC90 SUV outfitted with Uber’s sensor system, was in autonomous mode when it struck Elaine Herzberg, a 49-year-old woman, on Sunday around 10 p.m. There was a human safety driver at the wheel, but the car was carrying no passengers.

The vehicle was doing about 40 mph on a street with a 45 mph speed limit when it struck Herzberg, who was walking her bicycle across the street, according to the Tempe police.

Officials also said it did not appear as if the car had slowed down before impact and the Uber safety driver had shown no signs of impairment. The weather was clear and dry.

The accident was a reminder that self-driving technology is still in the experimental stage, as Silicon Valley giants, major automakers and other companies race to develop vehicles that can drive on their own. Governments, for their part, are still trying to figure out how to regulate the technology, and a patchwork of rules are in place around the country.

Uber’s self-driving program first started in Pittsburgh in September 2016 and extended to Tempe in February 2017. The Arizona city was considered an ideal place to test autonomous vehicles because of its favorable weather and wide roads.

After Sunday’s crash, Uber quickly suspended the program in Arizona, as well as in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto.

“Our hearts go out to the victim’s family,” an Uber spokeswoman, Sarah Abboud, said in a statement. “We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident.”

Herzberg’s death was not the first involving self-driving technology.

In 2016, a man in Florida was killed while at the wheel of a Tesla while using its Autopilot feature, which uses a computer vision-based vehicle detection system that differs from the technology used by Uber. Federal investigators later ruled that the system was not at fault in the crash.

How a Self-Driving Car Works

There are a few different types of technologies that are used in autonomous driving systems. Uber and Waymo, which was spun off from Google, use lidar technology, which uses lasers and radars — as opposed to computer vision — to help guide the vehicle.

A self-driving car’s sensors gather data on nearby objects, like their size and rate of speed. It categorizes the objects — as cyclists, pedestrians or other cars and objects — based on how they are likely to behave.

It is not yet clear whether Uber’s vehicle was at fault in the Arizona crash.