Following yesterday's market-moving report of a fatal accident involving a self-driving Uber car on the roads of Tempe, Arizona, legal experts immediately chimed in, saying this case presents many thorny legal issues - chief among which is the issue of who could be at fault.
Since it was the first recorded fatality involving a self-driving car, would investigators point the finger at the car's human driver? Uber? The car's manufacturer? Some combination of the three (or none of the above).
In the first hint at the investigation being carried out by Tempe police, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Tempe police chief said her preliminary investigation suggested that Uber wasn't at fault. Police Chief Sylvia Moir described the victim, the possibly homeless 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, as pushing a bicycle laden with plastic shopping bags when she abruptly stepped from the center media into a lane of traffic before being struck by the car.
"I suspect preliminarily it appears that the Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident, either," Moir said.
Moir added that she "wouldn't rule out" the possibility of charges against the backup driver in the vehicle, even though she said it appeared that neither a human driver or an autonomous car could've reasonably been expected to avoid the victim, who was caught on video abruptly stepping into the roadway into oncoming traffic.
To be sure, Moir said a finding that the car itself was at fault could open up a legal can of worms.
"This is really new ground we're venturing into," she said.
The car, which was traveling at 38 mph in a 35 mph zone when the accident occurred Sunday night, made no attempt to brake, according to the Police Department’s preliminary investigation. Herzberg was found unconscious at the scene, and declared dead at a local hospital.
"The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them," Moir said. "His first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision."
In response, Uber has halted testing of all autonomous vehicles, although that may change fast if Uber is found to be not at fault. The self-driving Volvo SUV was outfitted with at least two video cameras: one facing forward toward the street, and another monitoring the inside of the car, Moir said.
A review of a video of the accident - which police said will not be publicly released just yet - showed that "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," Moir said. The accident unfolded less than 100 yards from the nearest crosswalk.
"It is dangerous to cross roadways in the evening hour when well-illuminated, managed crosswalks are available," she said.
Tempe police are working with investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Hundreds of autonomous cars are operating in Arizona - but Moir said she's only aware of one other accident that occurred a year ago. The car, which was in self-driving mode, was flipped onto its side. But police cited the other car involved as the party responsible for the accident, finding that its human driver failed to yield. That driver was issued a ticket for a moving violation.