Toyota pauses robot-car programme after Uber accident kills woman in Arizona

Toyota worried about impact of Uber accident on its drivers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 5:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 5:00am

Japanese car giant Toyota Motor has halted tests of its “Chauffeur” autonomous driving system on US public roads after an Uber Technologies vehicle operating in autonomous mode under the supervision of a human safety driver struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona.

“Because we feel the incident may have an emotional effect on our test drivers, we have decided to temporarily pause our Chauffeur mode testing on public roads,” spokesman Brian Lyons said in an emailed statement, referring to its hands-off testing mode.

The carmaker said it could not speculate on the cause of the crash or what it may mean to the future of the nascent automated driving sector.

Toyota had been doing on-road testing with self-driving vehicles in Michigan and California, Lyons said.

The company has kept the number of vehicles small so they could be rapidly updated as the technology advances, he said, declining to name the specific number of self-driving vehicles in operation.

Before the incident, Toyota has been working on a plan to team up with Uber on autonomous driving.

Dara Khosrowshahi, chief executive officer of Uber, posted a photo on Twitter with Toyota President Akio Toyoda at the automaker’s headquarters last month, though details on the collaboration have been slim.

Lyons said on Tuesday that its self-driving unit, Toyota Research Institute, “does not have first-hand information on the tragic traffic fatality.”

A Toyota spokesman said last week the carmaker hadn’t yet decided whether to buy Uber’s driverless-car software.

Uber shuts down driverless car project after pedestrian is killed

On the other hand, Britain is pushing ahead with tests of self-driving cars on public roads despite mounting public concern over safety after the Uber accident which killed a pedestrian.

Roads minister Jesse Norman has pledged to keep the UK in the vanguard of developing autonomous technology, recently confirming an overhaul of road laws to include self-driving cars.

Greenwich is expected to allow Ford and Jaguar Land Rover autonomous cars on its streets in the next phase of testing.

Gatwick announced it would be testing autonomous vehicles to shuttle staff across the airfield, which it said could lead to “an Uber-like service” for ground staff to hail.

The country’s biggest carmaker, Jaguar Land Rover, has been experimenting with autonomous cars on roads in the Midlands and is set to demonstrate more of the cars’ features, including emergency braking assistance, on urban streets this week.

Government-backed trials using small autonomous vehicles in south London are due to end on Friday, with organisers though reporting widespread public unease about the implications for road safety and cybersecurity.

The Uber accident is the first fatality not involving a self-driving vehicle’s occupant. Elaine Herzberg, 49, was wheeling her bicycle when she was struck by the Volvo, and later died of her injuries in hospital.

US government safety investigators were sent to examine the crash site and Uber has suspended its test fleets of self-driving cars across the US and Canada.

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Police in Arizona said initial video footage suggested Herzberg walked out suddenly.

One previous fatality involving autonomous cars, a Tesla Model S owner killed in Florida in 2016 when his car crashed on autopilot, was blamed on the driver’s inattention, but investigators highlighted design flaws in the vehicle.

Many in the motor and insurance industries expect safety benefits from autonomous cars since more than 90 per cent of accidents involve human error. In 2016, the latest full year for which data is available, 448 pedestrians were killed by vehicles on UK roads, and more than 6,000 in the US.

But fears remain over how driverless cars will interact with humans on the roads.

Christian Wolmar, the author of Driverless Cars: a Road to Nowhere, said the Arizona accident would have a big impact: “We don’t know precisely what happened, but it is clear Uber are worried by withdrawing all their cars.

Driverless cars will not be accepted if there is a perception that they are not 100 per cent safe. Of course new technology has blips – but this one, that no one has particularly asked for, is being sold on the basis that it’s so much safer.”

Noel Sharkey, emeritus professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Sheffield, said: “Autonomous vehicles present us with a great future opportunity to make our roads safer. But the technology is just not ready yet and needs to mature before it goes on the road. Too many mistakes and the public may turn its back on the technology.”