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Uber's Self-Driving Tests Are Suspended After Pedestrian Is Killed


An investigation is continuing today into the death of a woman in Tempe, Ariz. She was hit by a self-driving vehicle. This is the first known fatality involving a pedestrian on a public road and a self-driving car. NPR's Laura Sydell looked into whether it could be a setback for more widespread use of self-driving cars.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: It happened on Sunday night around 10 p.m. A 49-year-old woman walking her bicycle stepped out into the street. Tempe Police Sergeant Ronald Elcock...


SERGEANT RONALD ELCOCK: The vehicle was traveling northbound, and the pedestrian was outside of a crosswalk. So it was mid-block. And as soon as she walked into the lane of traffic, she was struck by the vehicle that was traveling northbound.

SYDELL: That vehicle is an Uber-owned self-driving SUV. Though it was operating autonomously at the time, there was a driver in the car in case of an emergency. But Sylvia Moir, the Tempe police chief, tells the San Francisco Chronicle the driver explained it was quote, "like a flash" when the woman appeared. The police chief says the driver's first alert to the collision was the moment the crash happened. But Tempe police emphasized that this is the beginning of the investigation.

Still, it raised the eyebrows of some lawmakers like Democratic Congressman Edward Markey of Massachusetts. Markey issued a statement saying that the accident underscores why we have to be cautious in testing these technologies on public roads. Alice Armitage, a professor at University of California, Hastings College of the Law says the incident might impact how Congress and the states move forward. For example, California just eliminated a requirement that autonomous vehicles have a person in the driver's seat in case of emergency.

ALICE ARMITAGE: Will Congress get involved? Or will this make California rethink its permitting process? I think it might. I think it might.

SYDELL: Of course, it might turn out it wasn't the car's fault at all but the fault of human beings. Proponents of autonomous vehicles say it's human error they eventually hope to take out of the equation. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENSEES' "LUNAMOTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, andNPR.org.
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