Uber self-driving death puts brakes on tech giants

US transport safety investigators examine the self-driving Uber vehicle involved in a fatal accident in Tempe, Arizona. (Reuters)
Updated 24 March 2018

Uber self-driving death puts brakes on tech giants

PHOENIX: Video footage of a fatal pedestrian accident involving a self-driving Uber car has prompted calls to limit testing on public roads and raised concerns about the legal framework surrounding autonomous vehicle technology.
The 22-second video shows a woman walking her bike from a darkened area on to a street just before being struck by an Uber SUV in self-driving mode. The footage was released by police in Tempe, Arizona, following the crash earlier this week.
Three experts who studied the emerging technology concluded the video, which includes dashcam footage of the driver’s reaction, indicates the vehicle’s sensors should have spotted the pedestrian and initiated braking to avoid the crash that killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg on Sunday.
Uber has suspended testing as the investigation proceeds into the accident, the first fatality involving a self-driving vehicle.
Raj Rajkumar, who heads the autonomous vehicle program at Carnegie Mellon University, said the video was revealing in multiple ways, including that the driver appeared distracted, and that Herzberg appeared to have been in the roadway and moving for several seconds without her presence being sensed.
Laser systems used in the Uber vehicles, called Lidar, can carry a blind spot, he said.
“All of this should be looked at in excruciating detail,” he said.
Herzberg’s death occurs at a time when eagerness to put autonomous vehicles on public roads is accelerating in Silicon Valley, the auto industry and state and federal governments.
More than 100 car manufacturers and industry associations in early March sent a letter urging Congress to expedite passage of a proposal from Senator John Thune that aims to provide regulatory oversight and make it easier to deploy the technology.
After the crash, groups such as Vision Zero, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, and other safety-minded organizations urged the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to delay consideration of Thune’s proposal until the Tempe crash investigation is completed.
“The stage is set for what will essentially be beta-testing on public roads with families as unwitting crash test dummies,” the letter said.
Thune, who chairs the science committee, said in a statement Thursday that the crash underscores the need to adopt laws and policies tailored to self-driving vehicles.
“Congress should act to update rules, direct manufacturers to address safety requirements, and enhance the technical expertise of regulators,” Thune said.
Scott Hall, spokesman for the Coalition of Future Mobility, which represents a variety of auto, consumer and taxpayer interest groups, said on Thursday the organization supports the bill because a national framework of rules governing testing and deployment of technology is needed to avoid a 50-state patchwork of laws.
Data from the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that states are increasingly introducing legislation over autonomous vehicles — 33 in 2017. More than 20 states have already enacted autonomous vehicle legislation.
Uber, Intel, Waymo and GM are testing autonomous cars in Arizona, which does not require the firms to get a permit. After the Tempe crash, Governor Doug Ducey, who brought the companies to the state with a promise of minimal regulation, warned against jumping to conclusions.
He said both the Tempe police and National Transportation Safety Board were investigating.
“So let’s see what happened.”
Earlier this month, Ducey issued an executive order that will allow companies to operate autonomous vehicles without a person on board. The only requirement is to send an advisory letter to the state Department of Transportation.
John Simpson, of the California-based advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, said Ducey was turning Arizona into “the Wild West of automobile testing.”
“There are no regulations, and if there is no sheriff in town, somebody gets killed,” Simpson said.
The watchdog group is calling for a national moratorium on the testing of all autonomous vehicles until the cause of the fatal crash is determined. Simpson said other states and Congress should look to California, where even minor crashes must be reported, for a blueprint.
In Arizona, companies such as Uber need to carry only minimum liability insurance to operate self-driving cars. They are not required to track crashes or report any information to the state.
California requires a $5 million insurance policy, and companies must report accidents to the state within 10 days and release an annual tally showing how many times test drivers had to take over.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who has embraced limited regulations for autonomous vehicles, said the crash wasn’t causing him to rethink his state’s laws.
“We need to find out all the issues associated with that (crash),” he said. “It’s terrible to have someone get in an accident and be killed like that. Unfortunately, we have traffic deaths going on far too often in our country. Let’s all work harder on having safe roads.”


Japan lower house passes US trade deal but auto tariffs still in limbo

Updated 19 November 2019

Japan lower house passes US trade deal but auto tariffs still in limbo

  • There is uncertainty over how much progress Japan can make in negotiating the elimination of US tariffs on its cars and car parts
  • Japan has estimated the initial deal will boost its economy by about 0.8 percent over the next 10-20 years

TOKYO: Japan’s lower house of parliament approved on Tuesday a limited trade deal Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed with the United States, clearing the way for tariff cuts next year on items including US farm goods and Japanese machine tools.
But there is uncertainty over how much progress Japan can make in negotiating the elimination of US tariffs on its cars and car parts, casting doubt on Abe’s assurances the deal he signed with US President Donald Trump was “win-win.”
Japan and the United States last month formally signed the limited trade deal to cut tariffs on US farm goods, Japanese machine tools and other products while staving off the threat of higher US car duties.
The government’s proposal to ratify the trade deal will next be brought to the upper house for a vote but its passage in the powerful lower house increases the chances it will come into force in January.
The deal will give Trump a success he can trumpet to voters but Abe has said it will bring as much benefit to Japan as to the United States.
Japan has estimated the initial deal will boost its economy by about 0.8 percent over the next 10-20 years, when the benefits fully kick in. It also estimated ¥212.8 billion of overall tariffs on Japan’s exports to the United States will be reduced.
But the figures were based on the assumption the United States would eliminate its tariffs on Japanese autos and auto parts — a major sticking point.
Without those tariff cuts, the reduction in overall US tariffs on Japanese goods would be a little over 10 percent of the government’s projection, according to an estimate by Japan’s Asahi newspaper and Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting.
After the deal is ratified, Japan and the United States have four months to consult on further talks, and Trump has said he wants more trade talks with Japan after the initial deal.
But Japanese government sources familiar with the talks say the momentum to negotiate a deeper deal appears to have waned for now with Washington preoccupied with talks with Beijing.
“It’s unclear whether Washington seriously wants to continue trade talks,” one of the sources said.
“The question is how much time the United States can allocate for talks with Japan, even if we start negotiations. There’s limited time to conclude talks before the presidential elections.”
Japan and the United States already appear to have different interpretations of what was agreed on car tariffs.
Japan has said it has received US assurance that it would scrap tariffs on Japanese cars and car parts, and that the only remaining issue was the timing.
But Washington has not confirmed that.
US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has said cars were not included in the agreement, and that it was only Japan’s ambition to discuss car tariffs in the future.
A US document only said customs duties on autos and auto parts “will be subject to further negotiations with respect to the elimination of customs duties.”
“The deal was left vague on the issue of tariff cuts on Japanese auto and auto parts. Otherwise, we couldn’t have reached the agreement,” another source said.
There is also uncertainty on whether Trump will drop threats to impose steep tariffs on Japanese car imports under “Section 232” that gives him authority to do so on national security grounds.
Abe said he had got an assurance from Trump that he would not do that, though analysts say the president could always change his mind, or at least keep Japan guessing.
Opposition parties have attacked Abe for a deal they say is unfair. Critics say Trump could drag his feet on further negotiations unless he is sure he can win more concessions.
“There’s a chance Trump will put pressure on Japan on trade to appeal to his voters,” said Junichi Sugawara, senior research officer at Mizuho Research Institute. “There’s a possibility he could renew his threat over auto tariffs.”