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Engineers 'face safety challenge' following autonomous vehicle tragedy

Uber autonmous vehicle

An American woman has become the first person to be killed by an autonomous vehicle (AV), highlighting the challenge engineers face in safely incorporating autonomous vehicles into an incumbent roads and traffic system.

Elaine Herzberg, 49, was struck by an Über-owned AV at around 10pm last night (Monday) in Tempe, Arizona. She later died of her injuries in hospital.

Although a human driver, Rafael Vasquez, was in the car at the time, the Volvo SUV had been travelling in autonomous mode at 40mph.

Uber has reportedly suspended its AV trials across the US. Über chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi confirmed the company is working with police investigators.

Institution of Mechanical Engineers head of engineering Jenifer Baxter said engineers have a responsibility to create a safe environment for connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) tests.

She added: “This tragic event serves to draw attention to the challenges of incorporating autonomous vehicles into an incumbent system operating with manned vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians and other road users.

“Über is right to suspend their trials of autonomous vehicles until the cause of this accident is fully understood. In 2016 the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in our Case Study on Autonomous and Driverless Cars raised the need to address societal questions before highly and fully automated cars are both accepted and legally able to be positioned on our roads; this will include having the right regulatory framework in place.

“Engineers will need to create an environment where connected autonomous vehicles can operate safely with or without an operator during the transition period to a fully autonomous vehicle system. This transition period could last for several decades.”

Atkins-led consortium Flourish, made up of 14 organisations carrying out a £5.5M research programme into connected and autonomous vehicles, said CAV testing must continue despite the accident.

A spokesperson for Flourish said: “We must remain committed to doing everything we can to make our roads safer for all who use them. We believe that the approach the UK Government is taking underlines the need for rigorous testing and a step-by-step approach to safely integrating connected and automated vehicles in the UK.

“For this reason, it is important that we continue to invest in research and development activities to support the robust testing and safe introduction of CAVs.”

Tempe police investigators have been talking to the driver, Vasquez. It appears the car did not slow down or attempt to brake.

Tempe police sergeant Ronald Elcock said: “Our investigation did not show at this time that there were significant signs of the vehicle slowing down, but our investigation is going to reveal more once it’s complete.”

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Tempe police chief Sylvia Moir said it was unlikely Über would be found to be at fault, as the victim had walked into the road.

“It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle.

However, Moir added that the case could “open a legal quagmire”.

“I won’t rule out the potential to file charges against the (backup driver) in the Über vehicle,” Moir told the paper. “But if the robot car itself were found at fault? This is really new ground we’re venturing into.”

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