A pedestrian being hit and killed by an autonomous vehicle in Tempe, Arizona, on Sunday, March 18, 2018, was certainly destined to create a big response from the media and many have published their views regarding the sad incident.
The problem is, though, that many people have speculated inappropriately on the matter, including — it has to be said — the police chief in Tempe. So let’s make one important point straight away: The only relevant decision regarding blame for this or any other tragic incident clearly lies solely with the courts. Publishing unsubstantiated or wildly inaccurate opinions before any trial can only serve to affect the opinions of subsequent jurors and even officials — a highly undesirable situation. (In other countries this is the law — often referred to as Sub Judice — but sadly for the most accurate justice that is not the case in the USA.)
Before considering some of the comments, let’s take a look at the in-car video, apparently published by Tempe Police and then ABC7, since the incident:
On March 21, three days after the incident, a CP24 news article included this:
‘…The footage released Wednesday by police came a day after Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir told a newspaper that the SUV likely wouldn’t be found at fault.
‘The San Francisco Chronicle quoted Moir saying that it would have been difficult to avoid the collision.
“I suspect preliminarily it appears that the Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident, either,” Moir told the Chronicle.’
Given that full forensic crash investigation of an incident like this would take weeks rather than three days, it is impossible to see how Chief Moir could possibly come to this conclusion, or — worse — why she would even make such a comment, no matter what her personal belief.
The fact is that the Uber car was allegedly running in full autonomous mode, in which case it will have had at least one additional sensing system — either radar or lidar — other than just a camera to detect the presence of pedestrians ahead, even in total darkness. Thus there would appear to be a clear and significant failure of the vehicle’s autonomous system. This is the exact opposite of what Ms. Moir is claiming.
There has also been wide speculation that the street lighting at the scene of the fatal collision was sub-standard. This, too, can only be accurately assessed as part of a full forensic crash investigation — hopefully by the NTSB, given the precedent-setting nature of this incident. However, one important point that all of the “light-level” speculators have ignored is the calibration, or lack of calibration, of the video camera that recorded the forward view from the Uber car. Unless it was a good-quality video camera that could be adjusted for light levels, and unless it had been set up accurately for nighttime filming, then the video clip above will almost certainly be showing either more or quite possibly less than what the human behind the wheel could see with his bare eyes. Human eyes are still much better than even the best camera systems at continuously adjusting to varying light levels at night.
I believe my comments in the previous paragraph are also verified by the video footage taken inside the vehicle, of the driver. Watch the string of passing street lights that are visible out of the back window. The lighting from that angle looks much better than the scene from the front-facing camera. Admittedly, they are probably different types of camera, but footage from the front-facing camera almost makes the relevant section of the road appear to be virtually unlit — something it clearly is not. (Also see the video linked below.) This may suggest that the driver could indeed have seen the pedestrian much further away than the front camera suggests, so there very much is potential blame on the driver, given that whatever he was doing on his knee undeniably was inappropriate in a prototype autonomous vehicle.
As for the pedestrian crossing the road at an inopportune time, that may well be the case, but before that truly can be decided, the exact speed of the car, relative to the posted speed limit, must be forensically established.
In this context, the much lower-ranked police officer Sergeant Ronald Elcock spoke words of wisdom far exceeding those of his boss, Chief Moir, when he said: “Preliminary investigation showed that the vehicle was travelling at approximately 40 miles an hour and our investigation did not show at this time that there was significant signs of the vehicle slowing down.”
Sgt. Elcock also very understandably said that the police investigation is just beginning, which again shows the potential fallacy of early guesses about the cause or causes of the crash.
In their video report, however, CBS This Morning include a rough sketch of the scene, showing that the pedestrian was already in the fourth of the five lanes at the point where she was struck on the divided highway, close to the State Farm offices in Tempe — facts which point to the likelihood that she didn’t “suddenly” emerge into the path of the Uber car and also that she could potentially have been avoided by steering around her either to the left or the right (although the left would appear to have been the safer option). The same video also shows that — as I suggested above — the scene was apparently much more brightly-lit than the forward-facing camera in the Uber car suggests.
It therefore appears, at this speculation-ridden stage, that the two most apparent possibilities so far are that: (a) the Uber car’s autonomous system may not have been effective enough and failed to avoid a pedestrian who should have been clearly “visible” to one or more of the car’s safety systems, and (b) that the road was apparently better-lit than the dash-cam video suggests, and that had the safety driver been paying attention, there would appear to have been a good possibility that he could have seen the pedestrian in plenty of time to prevent the collision.
According to the New York Times, Senator Richard Blumenthal (Dem., Connecticut) said “This tragic incident makes clear that autonomous vehicle technology has a long way to go before it is truly safe for the passengers, pedestrians, and drivers who share America’s roads.”
At Advanced Drivers of North America [ADoNA], we agree with the senator.