The Uber test driver behind the wheel when a vehicle equipped for autonomous operation struck and killed and a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona in 2018 will now face trial next year on charges of negligent homicide.
The accident in Tempe marked the first time anyone had been killed by a driver operating in autonomous mode.
The 46-year old driver pleaded not guilty earlier this summer, but disclosure of a trial date has once again called attention to the accident, which effectively scuttled Uber’s AV tests, slowed testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads and curbed investors’ enthusiasm for AVs generally.
Several major groups such as Waymo, Lyft and the Ford-Volkswagen alliance, and Argo AI are continuing testing vehicles, but AV proponents are placing more emphasis on cargo-carrying commercial vehicles rather than passenger vehicles such as the Volvo involved in the fatal accident.
Uber was eventually cleared in responsibility for the crash by the Tempe Police Department but only after investigators from found that the test driver was not paying attention to the road because she was watching a television program on her smart phone while the car was in motion.
However, the National Safety Transportation Board, which investigated the crash, issued a report critical of Uber for failing to adequately maintain and check the onboard autonomous driving systems. In addition, Uber’s AV unit had failed to develop a culture of safety or to adequately train the safety drivers assigned to test vehicles, according to documents released by the NTSB.
Uber suspended its test of vehicles equipped for autonomous driving for nearly a year and pulled AV vehicles off the road in California. However, the tests were suspended again in March as the pandemic closed offices across the United States.
Testing has slowly resumed by AV supporters, but AV supporters face continuing skepticism about the technology despite the boom in tech stocks that has helped boost the share of companies such as Tesla.
Despite this skepticism, many companies have renewed their efforts, forming new partnerships or strengthening existing ones. The aforementioned Ford-Volkswagen being one of the more high-profile pairings. Volkswagen and Argo AI closed a $2.6 billion deal to develop autonomous vehicle technologies.
The partnership is part of larger alliance involving Ford Motor Co., which was revealed nearly a year ago. Ford has already invested $1 billion in Argo, a self-driving software developer, a few years ago. The two companies are already testing the software in Ford vehicles in several cities in the U.S.
VW will now become part of that development program with the closing of the deal, which calls for $1 billion cash infusion into Argo, which operates as an independent company, as well as the merging of the German automaker’s autonomous intelligent driving team with Argo, currently valued at about $1.6 billion.