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Video of Self-Driving Car Fatality Released: At Least One Expert Concludes Human Driver Could Have Avoided Collision

Posted March 23, 2018

By Jonathan A. Karon

The Tempe Arizona police have released video footage showing a Uber self-driving car striking and killing a pedestrian last Sunday, March 18th. The footage can be viewed at multiple websites, including that of the Guardian newspaper and U.S.A. Today.  It shows forty nine year old Elaine Herzberg walking her bicycle at what appears to be a normal pace and having safely made her way across one lane of traffic before being hit.

The car was equipped with radar, cameras and lidar, which is a laser detection system. Some experts who reviewed the video concluded that the car’s sensor’s should have detected Ms. Herzberg in time. More disturbingly, at least one expert concluded that a human driver would have avoided the collision. According to an article posted yesterday on Bloomberg News, Zachery Moore, a forensic engineer with extensive experience in accident reconstruction, “analyzed the video footage and concluded that a typical driver on a dry asphalt road would have perceived, reacted, and activated their brakes in time to stop about eight feet short” of the pedestrian.

The video also has interior footage of what Uber refers to as the “safety driver”, who has the ability to take control of the car in case of emergency and thus provide an extra layer of safety in case of system failure. The safety driver appears distracted and unengaged until the last moment before the crash.

This incident raises serious questions about the safety of testing autonomous vehicles on public streets. Although the companies promoting the technology argue that it has the potential to significantly reduce traffic fatalities by eliminating human error and selfish, unsafe driving behaviors, it is obviously not yet ready to replace human drivers. The companies would argue that only by further testing will the technology reach its potential. The counter-argument, of course, is the risk of such testing to everyone else on the road. As a result of the Arizona fatality, the City of Boston has temporarily halted testing of self-driving cars in the Seaport District.

Many of my colleagues believe that self-driving cars will eventually radically transform the nature of a personal injury law practice. They foresee that the auto accident cases of today will be the products liability cases of tomorrow. This may well prove to be the case, but there are still a lot of unknowns, including to what extent future federal regulations will affect the legal landscape. Ironically, the legal analysis of whether Uber is liable for Ms. Herzberg’s death should prove much simpler. It should turn on whether Uber knew or should have known that it was placing an unsafe car on the road and on whether its employee, the safety driver, negligently failed to pay proper attention. The answers to these questions are important, not just to Ms. Herzberg’s survivors, but to all of us.

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