CP photo by Kim Lyons
A Ford Focus model of an Uber driverless car
On March 18, a semi-autonomous Uber car struck and killed a pedestrian who was walking her bike across a street in Tempe, Ariz. Initial reports stated the crash was caused by the pedestrian darting out in front of the car, but those would prove inaccurate. A video
was released a few days after the crash by Tempe police that showed the car’s technology failed to identify the pedestrian, who was walking across the street slowly in very low light. Additionally, an Uber employee sitting in the driver's seat appeared to be looking down, immediately prior to the crash. According to the Associated Press
, experts who viewed the video have said Uber’s driverless-car
technology should have picked up the woman and stopped before colliding with her.
On March 27, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey suspended Uber’s self-driving testing privileges throughout the state. Now, the bike and pedestrian advocates at nonprofit Bike Pittsburgh are hoping Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania also consider adding some regulations to the driverless-car testing that occurs in Pittsburgh.
“Local authorities should have some standard to set regulations,” says Eric Boerer of Bike Pittsburgh.
Boerer says Bike Pittsburgh is calling on its members and others to raise awareness
of S. 1885, a U.S. Senate bill that would establish federal rules regarding autonomous vehicles, including preempting state and local authorities from passing regulations on driverless cars. Boerer hopes the senate considers adding requirements to ensure autonomous vehicles pass a vision test and prove they can detect and respond to all users of our roadways, including bicyclists and pedestrians.
In a past survey
, Bike Pittsburgh members have expressed some optimism at the potential for driverless cars to make biking and walking safer in cities like Pittsburgh. Boerer says Bike PIttsburgh will conduct another survey this September to see where its members stand concerning driverless cars, considering the crash in Arizona.
Boerer says Bike Pittsburgh isn’t demanding any specific regulations for driverless cars
from Pittsburgh or Pennsylvania leaders, but mentions that limiting driverless cars’ maximum speed could be effective in increasing safety. The driverless car in Arizona was reportedly traveling 38 mph in a 35 mph zone.
“We need to set that clear minimum safety standard,” says Boerer. “We need to see the city take that up. I would like to see the city take a larger role.”
Uber has halted its driverless car testing in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Toronto and Arizona since the crash occurred. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said in a March 27 article in The Incline
that if changes were to occur to Pittsburgh’s driverless cars, those would happen at the state level, not the city.
According to a report in The Incline, the mayor is also worried about how the public will perceive driverless technology following the Arizona crash, and that driverless cars are ultimately about improving safety because millions of people across the world die each year due to driver error. Peduto also told the website that there will always be risks when developing new technology, and mentioned the benefits driverless technology has brought to Pittsburgh, like thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in investment.
Boerer also thinks driverless cars shouldn’t be halted altogether, but he’s concerned Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania state legislators might react to the crash in Arizona by creating new rules for pedestrians and cyclists. Some state lawmakers, like state Rep. Anthony DeLuca
(D-Penn Hills), have introduced bills in the past that would require cyclist to wear “reflective clothing” while riding at night. He says this would be an attempt to further restrict the rights of cyclists and pedestrians, in lieu of increasing regulations on driverless cars.
“We are not going to stop this train from moving, but how do we make it safe for people?” says Boerer. “We really fear there will be a drive to the bottom in terms of regulations.”
“What are the after effects of this going to be?” asks Boerer. “We really hope that cities don’t bend over backwards to autonomous vehicles. We want them to accommodate people first.”
J.J. Abbott, spokesperson for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, sent a statement to City Paper
saying “the administration's top priority is ensuring the safety of residents of the Commonwealth.”
Abbott points out that Pennsylvania rules require a human driver to be “behind the wheel and responsible for control of the vehicle at all times,” unlike in Arizona where driverless cars were allowed to be operated without a human driver. However, a human driver was behind the wheel at the time of the Arizona crash, though the video shows the driver appeared to be looking down at her phone before the crash.
According to Abbott, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation doesn’t have the power to suspend driverless cars in Pennsylvania, since all the driverless-car companies, including Uber, Waymo and others, are following the Pennsylvania vehicle code by having a person in the driver’s seat.
Boerer says companies like Uber
should be more transparent given state and local authorities don’t have much ability to monitor them. Abbott indicated in his statement that Gov. Wolf is working to increase safety and accountability of driverless-car companies that operated in Pennsylvania.
“The Governor has called for legislation to improve oversight of autonomous-vehicle testing by defining the role entities such as PennDOT, the State Police and the Pennsylvania Turnpike play,” wrote Abbott, “and provide a governance structure for automated vehicle testing and deployment in the Commonwealth to enhance safety requirements and other issues.”