Since the concept of driverless cars first became a serious prospect, a lot of attention has been given to the possibility of their malfunction—if an autonomous vehicle damages property or even harms a human, who is at fault? And, given a worst-case scenario, how should a vehicle’s software choose between whose lives it prioritizes, the passenger or the pedestrian? This last question even became the basis for the Moral Machine, an online platform created by the MIT Media Lab that essentially crowdsources public opinion on different variations of the classic trolley problem thought experiment.
However, all of these questions had been considered largely theoretical until last night when, as The New York Times reports, a woman was struck and killed by an autonomous vehicle in Tempe, Arizona.
In what is believed to be the first case of an autonomous vehicle killing a pedestrian, the vehicle—which is owned by Uber and was part of their test fleet operating in Tempe, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto—killed a woman who was crossing a street outside of a designated crosswalk. At the time, the vehicle was in autonomous mode, though it did have a human “safety driver” at the wheel.
According to The New York Times, Uber has stated that it is “fully cooperating” with the local authorities regarding the issue and has suspended testing of its self-driving cars in all four cities.
Update:As per a report by Slate, the woman killed in the accident was named as 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg. She was struck while crossing North Mill Avenue, an 8-lane road with only one crosswalk in almost 2 miles.