Uber_Self_Driving_Volvo_at_Harrison_at_4th By Dllu - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

EXPERT REACTION: Self-driving car kills pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona

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It has just been reported that a self-driving car owned by Uber has killed a female pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, USA. This is thought to the be the first known death of a pedestrian struck by an autonomous vehicle on a public road. In response, Uber has suspended its autonomous vehicle program across the US and Canada. Below, Australian experts comment.

Organisation/s: Curtin University, Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Data61, Edith Cowan University, Swinburne University of Technology

Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Professor Simone Pettigrew is from the School of Psychology at Curtin University

Following the pedestrian accident event in the US, it is natural for concerns over autonomous cars to become heightened. It is very instinctive to fear things we cannot control.

However, much more information is needed before we can understand and learn from this incident.

In the meantime, consider the large number of accidents that have occurred in non-automated vehicles around the world in recent times that have not received media attention.

Unlike the autonomous vehicle accident, we have very limited ability to collectively learn from those ‘human’ errors and harness the experience to prevent similar accidents in the future.

Vehicle autonomy has the potential to save millions of lives, so it is important that there is an informed and measured response to this sad and unfortunate event.

Last updated: 20 Mar 2018 12:31pm

Professor Matthew Rimmer is Professor of Intellectual Property and Innovation Law at Queensland University of Technology

The Australian Parliament investigated social issues relating to land-based automated vehicles in Australia in 2017.

Amongst other things, the final report addressed public acceptance and engagement, safety, legal responsibility and insurance, employment, access and equity, and data.

However, the conclusions of the report are still quite tentative in terms of addressing the emerging technology.

The tragic death of a woman after an accident with an Uber self-driving car in the United States will perhaps accelerate Australia’s regulatory efforts in respect of autonomous vehicles.

In the United States, there has been a debate about the level of regulation required for autonomous vehicles. This accident may result in tighter regulation in the future.

Democratic senator Edward Markey said: 'This tragic accident underscores why we need to be exceptionally cautious when testing and deploying autonomous vehicle technologies on public roads.'

Last updated: 20 Mar 2018 12:10pm
Professor Toby Walsh is the Research Leader of the Optimisation Research Group at Data61

In 2017, I warned it would not be long before an autonomous car killed an innocent pedestrian or cyclist.

But we must not forget the benefits that come with autonomous cars, which ultimately will be far safer. We must  balance this one death against the ten or so people killed every day in the US by human drivers.

However, we could and should do more to ensure that the transition to self-driving cars is smoother. For example, there ought to be a central authority like for aircraft accidents that explores reasons for a crash and shares the lessons with all manufacturers and operators. It shouldn't be a race where no one talks to each other.

Last updated: 20 Mar 2018 11:40am
Michael Milford is a QUT Professor, ARC Future Fellow, Microsoft Research Faculty Fellow, Chief Investigator for the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision and founding director of the Math Thrills initiative.

We know that the self-driving car corporates and start-ups are doing extensive testing to improve the reliability of their cars, which is already very good in many, but not all, situations. We also know that, just as is the case with human drivers, there are occasional pathological situations where it’s near impossible for a car (whether human or autonomously operated) to make a good decision.

Whether this particular tragic incident is one of those, the fault of the autonomy system, or a mixture of both remains to be seen.

Last updated: 20 Mar 2018 11:37am
Dr Zubair Baig is a Senior Research Scientist in Cyber Security, CSIRO, Data61

Autonomous vehicles are here to stay and we must have proper laws in place to safeguard the rights of car accident victims and owners alike. It is imperative to understand that these vehicles are not accident-proof!

Dynamics of the surroundings involving unpredictable human behaviour, objects coming off unsecured loads of other vehicles & the ever-present cyber threat to these vehicles would certainly need a serious study by all stakeholders before it's too late!

Advanced AI can help deter these hazards, provided that the autonomous vehicle is rigorously tested in dynamic road conditions, which seems to be lacking in the current space.

Last updated: 20 Mar 2018 11:33am
Hussein Dia is an Associate Professor in Transport Engineering at the Swinburne University of Technology.

This is a tragic event and will be a turning point in the conversation about the testing of autonomous vehicles in an urban context. A human fatality will increase public and regulatory scrutiny of this technology, which is aimed at achieving the opposite outcome – saving lives. 

There will be questions raised about whether the autonomous vehicles should be tested on open roads. More importantly, the key question that regulators should be addressing is which companies should be allowed to test them in real-world environments.

Not all self-driving software is at the same stage of development and readiness. Some companies have been testing the self-driving software for years and their algorithms are much more developed than others. There needs to be more scrutiny of the underlying AI systems before the autonomous vehicles are allowed on open roads.

The other unfortunate outcome from this particular story is that police are already blaming the victim …“crossing  outside of the crosswalk”. This is not a valid justification for traffic deaths and should not be used to provide a cover for the companies who operate these trials.

Last updated: 20 Mar 2018 11:21am

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