Tempe Police Chief: Uber AV vs. Pedestrian Crash May Have Been Unavoidable

After viewing the videos taken by two cameras equipped in the Uber autonomous vehicle that fatally struck 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg on Sunday, the chief concluded the crash was difficult to avoid. Also, lessons on the crash from David Leonhardt.

3 minute read

March 21, 2018, 11:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid


Sadly, Elaine Herzberg, who was fatally struck by an Uber in autonomous mode with a driver behind the wheel on March 18 in Tempe, Ariz., may take her place in history alongside Henry Bliss, who, after stepping off a trolley in Manhattan on Sept. 12, 1899, was hit by a battery-powered taxi, becoming the first American pedestrian to die from a crash with a motor vehicle.

New York Times op-ed columnist David Leonhardt penned some lessons from the Tempe crash for us to consider, but first an update on the crash itself from Carolyn Said, who writes on autonomous vehicles for the San Francisco Chronicle.

“The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them,” said Sylvia Moir, police chief in Tempe, Ariz., the location for the first pedestrian fatality involving a self-driving car. “His first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision. 

The self-driving Volvo SUV was outfitted with at least two video cameras, one facing forward toward the street, the other focused inside the car on the driver, Moir said in an interview.

After viewing the videos, which have not been released, Moir said, “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.”

Another revelation: Herzberg did not step into Mill Avenue near Curry Road from the sidewalk but rather from "a center median into a lane of traffic," reports Said. The speed limit of Mill Avenue is 35 mph. The Uber was reportedly traveling 38 mph.

Lessons on the crash from David Leonhardt, New York Times op-ed columnist

"[E]everyone — policymakers, the media, the public — should recognize how the Tempe crash may feed a dangerous pattern of irrationality: Human beings are quick to rationalize their own errors and quick to obsess over a machine’s errors," he opines on March 20.

As Cade Massey of the University of Pennsylvania told me yesterday, “People punish the machine more harshly for mistakes than they do humans.”

Let's keep this traffic fatality in perspective. "Human-driven cars kill more than 100 Americans on average each day," Leonhardt adds.

This country now has the most dangerous roads [see posts on America's deadly roads (Leonhardt op-ed) and on World Resouces Institute/World Bank study] per mile driven of any affluent country. And less than 30 years ago, our roads were no more dangerous than those in any average affluent country.

A final note on the comparison of Herzberg to Bliss who was killed by the Uber of his day in 1899, a taxi, and an electric one at that. In the following 113 years, there have been over 3.6 million fatalities on America's roadways caused by human-driven motor vehicles. Autonomous vehicles, Sunday's crash notwithstanding, have the potential to dramatically reduce the rate at which road users, particularly the most vulnerable, pedestrians and cyclists, die in traffic.

Hat tip to Kenyon Karl via Sierra Club Healthy Communities and Transportation forum.

Monday, March 19, 2018 in San Francisco Chronicle

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