Uber offers condolences after autonomous vehicle fatality

Though experts have said such an accident was inevitable, the fallout has brought Uber’s testing program to a halt and has elicited new scrutiny for the scandal-prone company.

Can Uber avoid public condemnation this time?

The company has been testing autonomous vehicles around North America, and one of its vehicles struck a woman walking her bicycle across a street in Tempe, Arizona. She was taken to a hospital, where she died of her injuries.

Uber quickly took actions after the accident but has kept a low profile.

The Washington Post reported:

The crash Sunday night in Tempe was the first death involving a full autonomous test vehicle. The Volvo was in self-driving mode with a human backup driver at the wheel when it struck 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg as she was walking a bicycle outside the lines of a crosswalk in Tempe, police said.

Uber immediately suspended all road-testing of such autos in the Phoenix area, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto. The ride-sharing company has been testing self-driving vehicles for months as it competes with other technology companies and automakers like Ford and General Motors.

The accident is a black eye not only for Uber, but for the entire tech industry as automakers careen toward a more automated future.

The Washington Post continued:

The public’s image of the vehicles will be defined by stories like the crash in Tempe, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies self-driving vehicles. It may turn out that there was nothing either the vehicle or its human backup could have done to avoid the crash, he said.

Either way, the fatality could hurt the technology’s image and lead to a push for more regulations at the state and federal levels, Smith said.

The companies that supply vehicles for Uber’s autonomous car program also went on the defensive.

Bloomberg reported:

Carmakers who’ve linked their autonomous futures to Uber Technologies Inc. could feel the effects after a self-driving car from the ride-hailing giant hit and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona, on Sunday evening.

“We are aware that Uber is cooperating with local authorities in their investigation,” Volvo said in a statement after the crash.

“We believe that open collaboration with various companies is critical” for mobility as a service, a spokeswoman for Toyota said in an email after the Uber incident. “As such, we regularly exchange information about automated driving with Uber for some time now. However, beyond what we have announced, nothing is decided at this moment.”

Daimler AG, the manufacturer of Mercedes-Benz, has also reached an agreement with Uber to include the German company’s self-driving vehicles on its ride-hailing network in the “coming years.” Daimler declined to comment Monday on the Uber incident.

Some good news has come for Uber: Police said it is unlikely Uber’s driving software will be blamed.

NPR reported:

While the Tempe Police Department has declined to determine fault yet, the city’s police chief, Sylvia Moir, told The San Francisco Chronicle that from viewing videos of the collision taken by the car’s onboard cameras, “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.”

So far, no one is accusing the safety driver behind the wheel of the self-driving car, but the incident is still under investigation.

The Verge reported:

The investigation is going to be similar to those of normal car accidents, [Tempe police spokesman Sgt. Ronald Elcock] said. Once the investigation concludes, the case will be referred to the Maricopa County attorney, who will determine whether to bring charges. When asked to describe what it means to be in “autonomous mode,” Tempe police deferred to Uber.

The accident has called into question the readiness of the technology, with some reporting that many flaws persist with automated driving systems.

Uber’s company history has damaged consumer trust in its brand.

“Research shows that Uber is the tech company Americans admire the least,” said Curtis Sparrer, a principal of Bospar, a tech PR firm. “Uber needs to act with real compassion, apologizing for the death and doing whatever it takes to help the deceased’s family. Not only do they need to put the driverless car program on hold, they need to demonstrate what safeguards they will institute to make sure this never happens again.”

Uber tweeted condolences for the victim’s family:

Uber’s CEO retweeted the message:

Some were unnerved by the reasoning that the pedestrian did not stay within the crosswalk:

Others pointed out that poorly designed streets might be part of the problem:

A warning for zealous PR pros: Don’t try to pitch your business on the back of someone else’s tragedy. Reporters probably won’t reward your hustle.

How would you advise Uber to rebuild trust, Ragan/PR Daily readers?

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