NTSB: Arizona’s lack of rules for self-driving cars partly to blame in fatal Uber crash

An Uber self-driving vehicle in Tempe in March 2018. Photo by zombieite | Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In a blistering final report on the 2018 fatal Uber self-driving accident, the National Traffic Safety Board divided the blame between Uber, the safety driver in the vehicle and the state of Arizona for lacking regulations and policies governing autonomous vehicles on public roadways.

The report faulted Arizona for “shortcomings in improving the safety” for testing of self-driving vehicles both before and since the collision – shortcomings that put the public at risk.

The NTSB released a preliminary report earlier this month on the collision that killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, but investigators presented their final findings Tuesday. 

Among the 19 findings, NTSB investigators found that Arizona’s approach toward the technology at the time of the crash did not adequately protect the public. 

“Arizona’s lack of a safety-focused application-approval process for automated driving system testing at the time of the crash, and its inaction in developing such a process since the crash, demonstrate the state’s shortcomings in improving the safety of (autonomous vehicle) testing and safeguarding the public,” the report states. 

The report also singled out the Arizona Department of Transportation’s “insufficient oversight of automated vehicle testing” as a contributing factor to the crash. 

“Arizona appreciates the work done by the NTSB, and we are reviewing the case docket and recommendations carefully. This issue is about safety, and we take it very seriously – when the facts of this case were known, we immediately sent a letter that ceased testing for Uber in the state. To date, Arizona is the only state to take such action,” Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey, said in a statement to Arizona Mirror

In August 2015, Ducey signed an executive order laying out how autonomous vehicles would be tested in the state. 

The order stated that an employee had to be behind the wheel of any autonomous vehicle and required that companies notify ADOT of any testing. 

In March 2018, Gov. Ducey signed another executive order outlining additional rules for autonomous testing that included making companies state that their vehicles could stop safely. 

The NTSB said Arizona should require developers of self-driving technology submit an application for testing their vehicles that includes a plan “to manage the risk associated with crashes and operate inattentiveness and establishes countermeasures to prevent crashes.” 

The report also suggested that the state establish a group of experts to evaluate these applications before allowing the companies to begin testing. 

A similar group already exists that advises ADOT already. 

The Arizona Self-Driving Vehicle Oversight Committee, which is supposed to advise ADOT on policy and priorities for self-driving technology, has only met once, in August 2016. 

“With safety as our top priority, we will continue to work with first responders, local and federal government partners, industry experts and the private sector to make sure Arizona is taking all appropriate action to ensure the safe testing of self-driving technology in the state,” Ptak said.