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How Can Cities Respond to the First Incident of an Autonomous Vehicle Killing a Pedestrian?

An autonomous vehicle-related death in Arizona might lead some in government to pay closer attention to self-driving car testing and development.

Though states appear unlikely to slow down the deployment of self-driving vehicles after one such car killed a pedestrian in Arizona, the incident has nonetheless raised questions about how government will handle the technology moving forward.

From a risk perspective, cities and states who want to host testing programs should proceed with clear plans related to how the testing will unfold, and what to do when an accident occurs, according to Thom Rickert, vice president and emerging risks specialist for Trident Public Risk Solutions.

“Vehicles, pedestrian, motorcycles, bicycles, they will have contact with each other in any real-life operating area. It’s just going to happen. You know it’s going to happen. So lets have a plan,” Rickert said.

The accident involved a self-driving car operated by Uber in Arizona that struck and killed a pedestrian. The incident marked the first time a pedestrian had been killed by a self-driving car, sending shock waves through the nascent — but quickly emerging — autonomous vehicle industry. In the wake of the accident, Uber as well as Toyota have halted testing operations.

The accident in Arizona should not sideline AV technology, said Rickert; but it underscores the need by state and local government to do their due diligence in planning to ensure the changes unfold as safely as possible.

“First of all, let’s determine what actually happened, deconstruct it. What went wrong?” said Rickert. “And how do we respond to that without losing sight that this technology will save lives?”

Before allowing testing, cities ought to set up parameters such as test area, times, speed and other factors, as well as give consideration to other concerns such as infrastructure needs like parking or electric vehicle charging areas, say officials.

“What is it that they believe the future of autonomous vehicles can bring to their city?” said Rickert. “What is the value they see in them, whether it’s mobility, integration with existing infrastructure, easing stress on law enforcement, all of these different pieces. What is it that they’re trying to accomplish? And then the programmatic way of going about, OK, who are we going to allow to do this? What kind of agreements are we going to have with them, contractually? And how am I going to gate the area, with regards to testing?”

Regardless of the due diligence all cities are likely to show when it comes to AV testing, the death in Arizona will surely take some wind out of AVs’ sails, said Rickert.

“Absolutely,” Rickert said. “Because of the fear ... The immediate fear always overrides the future benefit. That’s just the way our minds work.”

It’s not yet entirely clear how much AV brake-pumping to expect in the 21 states, and Washington, D.C., that have passed legislation related to autonomous vehicles. 

California recently approved a change to its autonomous vehicle testing rules, namely, no longer requiring that a human driver be in the self-driving cars. The California Department of Motor Vehicles can begin issuing driverless testing permits on April 2, 2018. However, that’s no guarantee the cars will take to the roads.

“The DMV is allowed to begin issuing driverless testing and, or, deployment permits on April 2, but that doesn’t mean a manufacturer will meet the requirements or if we will approve them,” said Jessica Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the California DMV, in an email.

It’s not yet clear if the state will consider any further rules or regulations around AV testing.

Nevada has been active in its endorsement of AVs and being a leader in technology testing. Las Vegas is in the fifth month of testing an autonomous shuttle downtown. The small electric vehicles stick to a fixed route and include an operator on board.

AAA of Northern California, Utah and Nevada is a sponsor of the shuttle pilot program, with the aim of introducing AV technology “to as many people as possible,” said Sarah Swigart, manager of the Autonomous Vehicle Strategy Group at AAA.

“We at AAA believe that while this autonomous vehicle technology has been advancing very rapidly, we believe that public education, such as this real-life experience can be crucial in improving the broad acceptance and community readiness of this technology,” said Swigert during a March 14 webinar.

The car owners’ membership organization expressed concern following the pedestrian death in Arizona, saying the technology should be strenuously tested before it’s made widely available.

“The tragic incident in Arizona highlights the need for traffic safety to be at the forefront of the development of self-driving technology,” said John Moreno, a manager of public affairs at AAA, in a statement. “As a traffic safety advocate, AAA is working to understand the complexities of the interplay between autonomous vehicles and human road users, and is committed to educating the public and working with industry leaders to ensure these exciting technologies are implemented safely.”

Regretful as the incident in Arizona is, said Thomas Martin, a management analyst for the Management Services and Programs Division at the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles, “this does not deter Nevada’s progress on moving forward with the innovative technology that we invite onto our roads.”

The state passed legislation last year to strengthen the state’s efforts in AV testing and innovation, and allow for fully autonomous vehicles.

“Assembly Bill 69 allows the opportunity for companies to bring their technology to Nevada for testing purposes,” said Martin, referring to the AV legislation. “It is defined in AB69 that these companies need to have safety measures in place in the case of such situations like what happened in Arizona.”

The group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which has generally advised strong caution when it comes to AV adoption, called the Arizona death a “wake-up call for Congress” to slow the development of AVs.

Officials at the Mcity Test Facility at the University of Michigan, a major AV testing grounds, were reluctant to comment on the future of self-driving car testing.

“Mcity is not prepared to talk about what the long-term impact might be, or should be, of the Uber crash. Too much remains unknown,” wrote Susan Carney, a spokesperson for Mcity, in an email. 

What is known, Rickert says, is the technology is still in its infancy and may not be ready for full deployment.

“The technology simply isn’t where it needs to be for totally autonomous, especially in multiple environments and multiple areas,” said Rickert.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.