Daughter of Uber autonomous vehicle victim retains lawyer

  • World
  • Friday, 23 Mar 2018

FILE PHOTO: U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators examine a self-driving Uber vehicle involved in a fatal accident in Tempe, Arizona, U.S., March 20, 2018. A women was struck and killed by the vehicle on March 18, 2018. National Transportation Safety Board/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

PHOENIX, Ariz (Reuters) - The daughter of the woman killed by an Uber [UBER.UL] self-driving vehicle in Arizona has retained a personal injury lawyer, underlying the potential high stakes of the first fatality caused by an autonomous vehicle.

The law firm of Bellah Perez in Glendale, Arizona, said in a statement it was representing the daughter of Elaine Herzberg, who died on Sunday night after being hit by the Uber self-driving SUV in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe.

"As the first pedestrian death involving an Uber autonomous vehicle, the incident has sparked a national debate about the safety of self-driving cars, exposing the technology's blind spots and raising questions of liability," the law firm said in its statement.

The firm did not immediately return phone calls seeking more information.

Fall-out from the accident could stall the development and testing of self-driving vehicles, which are designed to perform far better than human drivers and sharply reduce the number of motor vehicle fatalities that occur each year.

The fatality also presents an unprecedented liability challenge because self-driving vehicles, which are still in the development stage, involve a complex system of hardware and software often made by outside suppliers. The specifics of how Uber's technology operates are not known.

Herzberg, 49, who was homeless, was jay-walking across a divided four-lane road with her bicycle when she was struck while in the far right-hand lane. A video taken from a dash-mounted camera inside the vehicle that was released by Tempe police on Wednesday showed the SUV travelling along a dark street when suddenly the headlights illuminate Herzberg in front of the SUV.

She later died from her injuries.

Other footage showed the human driver who was behind the wheel mostly looking down and not at the road in the seconds before the accident.

Uber, like many other companies testing self-driving vehicles, has a human driver in each vehicle as a monitor and to act as a backup if necessary.

Few details of the incident have emerged amid the investigations by police and federal safety regulators. Police have said the vehicle, a Volvo XC90 which was operating in autonomous mode, was travelling at about 40 mile per hour (65 km per hour) at the time of the collision and did not appear to brake.

Police have said that following their probe, they will submit the case to the Maricopa County Attorney's office, which will determine if there is any basis for a case for potential criminal prosecution.

"By encouraging businesses like Uber to set up shop in Arizona, the state has hoped to be at the forefront of emerging technology and the sharing economy," the Bellah Perez law firm wrote. "But the potentially drastic shift in accident liability associated with self-driving technology is causing many professionals to question the legal implications of the industry."

One key question for investigators will be how the vehicle's technology failed to notice the pedestrian crossing the street in front of it, despite the darkness. Self-driving cars typically use a combination of sensors, including radar and light-sensing Lidar, to identify objects, including potential obstacles coming into range.

In company presentations, Uber has stated its self-driving technology includes sensors that provide a 360-degree view around the vehicle.

Self-driving cars being tested routinely have been involved in fender-benders with other vehicles. Last week, a self-driving Uber crashed with another vehicle in Pittsburgh, local news reported. A Tesla Model S that crashed in 2016, killing its driver, was using semi-autonomous technology and was not considered a full self-driving car.

(Writing by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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