Will Uber’s Self-Driving Car Crash Deter Competitors?

Uber’s self-driving cars are at a standstill following a crash in Tempe, Ariz., on Friday, during which an Uber self-driving car rolled onto its side.

Although Uber was not at fault — the three-vehicle crash was caused by a human driver failing to yield at a traffic signal — the incident is problematic for the rideshare giant. The incident serves as a reminder that autonomous vehicles will always be susceptible to collisions and accidents, especially when operating in tandem with human-driven vehicles.

“The biggest hurdle is how to implement these autonomous vehicles when there are human-operated vehicles on the road,” Melanie Capuano, attorney and counselor at Law Miller Canfield, told Mobility Buzz in February. “It’s difficult to coordinate the infrastructure the autonomous vehicles are operating through with human error. That’s one of the biggest hurdles to putting these vehicles on the road in a commercial manner.”

The Uber car involved in the crash was part of a pilot project in Arizona that allows users of Uber’s ride-hailing service to summon autonomous vehicles, while human-safety engineers remain behind the wheel. Uber started the project in Pittsburgh in September 2016 and expanded the pilot to Tempe, Ariz., earlier this month.

The Uber SUV was in autonomous mode at the time of the collision, but there were no backseat passengers. While no serious injuries were reported, the Arizona crash caused enough hype for Uber to ground its fleet of self-driving cars in Arizona, as well as in Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

But, how will this crash affect the self-driving revolution?

For competitors, like nuTonomy, it doesn’t appear to have deterred them from continuing to operate business as usual.

The Boston-based autonomous vehicle company will not suspend its tests of self-driving cars in South Boston, Karl Iagnemma, nuTonomy’s chief executive said in a published report. Not enough is known about the crash yet to halt testing, he added.

Overall, there are a couple of options to fix the issue of autonomous vehicles and human-operated vehicles from encountering such issues, Miller Canfield’s Capuano said. “In an ideal world, if every vehicle is autonomous, things would run smoothly. But it’s not feasible at this point for the government to say, ‘You can’t drive your car,’ and force you to upgrade to an autonomous vehicle.”

One possible solution is for automakers to “upfit” manually-operated vehicles, so that their cars could communicate with self-driving vehicles, Capuano added. But it’s not clear yet how they will overcome this hurdle or implement this technology.

“While self-driving vehicles are intended to make driving safer, the likelihood that it will eliminate all accidents is low,” Kristin Kolodge, executive director of driver Interaction and human machine interface at J.D. Power, told Mobility Buzz. “We need to manage customer expectations in a way that builds and maintains their trust in automated technology and be careful to avoid overstating its capability.”

The self-driving Uber crash comes on the heels of last week’s leak of Uber’s internal documents, which revealed the disengagement rate of the company’s autonomous vehicles. During the week ending March 8, human drivers had to take over from autonomous systems once every 0.8 miles, according to Recode.net. That number has worsened slightly since the end of January, when drivers had to intervene every 0.9 miles.

Uber did not respond for comment by press time.

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