Self-Driving Uber Crash In Tempe The Subject Of Federal Meeting Next Week

By Bret Jaspers
Published: Friday, November 15, 2019 - 9:04am

Self-driving Uber fatal accident
National Transportation Safety Board
NTSB investigators in Tempe examine the self-driving Uber vehicle involved in a fatal accident.

A federal board charged with investigating major transportation accidents is set to talk about last year’s deadly crash in Tempe involving an Uber self-driving test car. 

The National Transportation Safety Board will meet on Tuesday to determine the probable cause of the crash. A recent report from the Board said Uber’s “system design did not include a consideration for jaywalking pedestrians.” The woman struck, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, died. The human operator of the vehicle, Rafaela Vasquez, was watching TV when the crash occurred. 

The Board, however, provides only safety recommendations and doesn’t regulate

“Most of their recommendations are made purely on what’s best for safety. There isn’t a lot of cost-benefit analysis involved in it,” said Patricia Doersch, a partner at the law firm Squire Patton Boggs. “They’re going: in a perfect world, if X were Y, this accident could have potentially been prevented.”

Several speakers at an autonomous vehicles symposium in Chandler on Thursday sought to put the accident in a broader context.

Maricopa County Supervisor Jack Sellers made a distinction between the Uber vehicle and other companies who test self-driving cars.

“We need to understand that there’s a huge difference between the technology level that’s in that vehicle and the technology level that’s in our Waymo vehicles and our Intel vehicles,” said Sellers, who is also chairman of the Arizona State Transportation Board. 

The symposium was put on by the Chandler Chamber of Commerce. Among the issues discussed by industry and government representatives were safety, cybersecurity, and infrastructure improvements.

Greg Rodriguez, an expert in mobility at the firm Stantec, said in an interview that the conversation often focuses on the safety of the technology, but our infrastructure could use some attention at the same time. 

“Are there opportunities to rethink our roads so that we prevent those potential tragedies as the technology is deployed?” he asked.

Along the same lines, Thad Miller of Arizona State University said roads could be made safer right now with changes to asphalt and paint. 

“We don’t have to wait 10 or 20 years for that to be at scale,” he said.

Doersch said there’s a chance Congress could take up comprehensive autonomous vehicle legislation by the end of next year. A 2018 effort failed.

Kevin Biesty, Deputy Director for Policy at the Arizona Department of Transportation, encouraged people to read the full Board report of the Uber crash, as well as the police report. 

“You had two road users that were not using the system as it was designed,” said Biesty, who said he will be in Washington, D.C. for the Board meeting. “Whether you’re a pedestrian, a bicyclist, an operator, you have a responsibility to use the system the way it’s designed. If you don’t, bad things are going to happen.”

Also next week, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation will hold a hearing on self-driving vehicles.