Dallas Law Firm Blog

Did Uber Jump the Gun on Self-Driving Vehicles?

As you may have heard by now, a self-driving Uber SUV hit and killed a pedestrian on a Tempe, Arizona street in March. It was thought to be the first death that was caused by a fully self-driving vehicle in the United States. Below is more information about this fatal car accident and what you need to know about possible dangers of self-driving vehicles.

What Happened?

An autonomous Uber Volvo SUV struck and killed Elaine Herzberg, 49, as she was walking her bike across a street in Tempe in mid-March 2018. According to police information about the crash, the vehicle was traveling at 40 mph in a 35 mph zone. The 44-year-old test driver, Rafael Vasquez, was behind the wheel of the SUV when the fatal accident occurred. According to data from the vehicle’s computer, the SUV did not slow before striking the pedestrian.

Why Did the Car Have a Driver?

The Uber vehicle was in autonomous mode at the time of the tragedy — in other words, driving by itself, but with a driver in the driver’s seat to serve as a safeguard or backup. There were not any signs after the crash that Vasquez was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

How Did Uber Respond?

Uber reported that it stopped conducting self-driving vehicle tests in the U.S. and Canada after the crash. It had been doing autonomous vehicle tests in Pittsburgh, Arizona and Toronto. Once before, Uber ceased autonomous vehicle testing after a crash. That was in 2017, after an Uber vehicle crashed in Tempe. No injuries occurred in that incident.

Uber stated in late March that it would not renew its permit to test autonomous vehicles in California until police and investigators reach a final conclusion in the fatal Tempe crash.  The governor of Arizona also suspended self-driving car tests in the state until a final report is issued about the cause of the accident.

Legal Issues Surrounding Self-Driving Vehicles

Some say that Uber has jumped the gun on testing self-driving vehicles. The company will want to use caution going forward with further tests. While more detailed information must come out to assess responsibility for the Tempe crash, we can say this: Under standard tort law, if the backup driver did not exercise ‘reasonable care’ to avoid the accident, Uber could be held liable for negligence.

If the automatic features of the vehicle did not ‘see’ the woman crossing the road, the vehicle manufacturer and Uber could be held liable in civil court under product liability rules.

Some speculate that states could even be held partially liable for these accidents; Arizona has been one of the most lenient in opening its roads to self-driving vehicle tests, but whether the state could be held liable depends upon the terms under which the traditional state immunity from tort responsibility were lifted.

This is a new area of the law, and anyone who has been injured by a self-driving vehicle should consult with an experienced car accident attorney.

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