Uber has cleared its self-driving cars to return to the roads in Tempe, San Francisco and Pittsburgh – the three US cities where its autonomous vehicle pilot program is currently in operation. The pilot was suspended late last week after one of Uber’s ‘self-driving’ was involved in an accident in Tempe. According to the Tempe police department, the crash occurred when a human-driven vehicle reportedly ‘failed to yield’ to an Uber car set in self-driving mode while it was making a turn. ‘The vehicles collided, causing the autonomous vehicle to roll onto its side… there were no serious injuries,’ a police spokesperson told Reuters. Two Uber engineers were passengers in the car’s front seats when the collision occurred.
Autonomous vehicles and liability
The question of who is responsible when self-driving cars are involved in accidents has been one of the central legal conundrums of the blossoming autonomous vehicle industry over the last few years. In July, the first case of an individual being killed in an accident involving a self-driving car was registered in Florida, thrusting the tricky legal hypothetical into the realm of the real. The liability finger has been pointed every which way, from software developers to CEOs. However, while autonomous vehicles have been championed by many as a way to remove the risk of human error from driving, the growing incidence of crashes has forced many to readjust their expectation that self-driving cars can ever be completely safe.
Perhaps the most that can be hoped for is that self-driving cars will be safer than a human-driven vehicles by reducing the likelihood of an accident. But then, when inevitable accidents do occur, who can we blame?
The incident comes at a challenging time for Uber, just six months after it first launched its autonomous vehicle pilot program in Pittsburgh and during a period of intense regulatory and ethical scrutiny for the company. The pilot program is also fending off a lawsuit from Google parent company Alphabet Inc’s own autonomous vehicle unit, Waymo, which accuses Uber of stealing a critical technology design element known as Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) for use in its vehicles. Uber has as yet declined to publicly discuss the conclusions of its brief investigation into the Arizona crash.