Toyota pauses self-driving car testing amid Uber accident probe

TEMPE, Ariz./DETROIT (Reuters) – Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T) said on Tuesday it will pause autonomous vehicle testing following an accident in which an Uber Technologies Inc self-driving vehicle struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona.

Visitors look at car models on the Toyota stand during the 88th Geneva International Motor Show in Geneva, Switzerland, March 7, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Toyota said in a statement “the incident may have an emotional effect on our test drivers. This ‘timeout’ is meant to give them time to come to a sense of balance about the inherent risks of their jobs.”

Separately, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in Phoenix said it was awaiting the results of an investigation by Tempe police of the fatality before reviewing whether any charges should be filed. Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also are investigating the accident.

The death of pedestrian Elaine Herzberg late on Sunday after she was struck by a Volvo sport utility vehicle operating in autonomous mode is the first such fatality for the nascent self-driving car industry.

The death is drawing fresh attention to questions about the safety of autonomous vehicle systems, and the challenges of testing them on public streets. Self-driving cars have been involved in minor accidents, according to reports filed with regulators. Nearly all of them have been blamed on human motorists hitting the autonomous vehicle.

Arizona has welcomed companies developing self-driving vehicles with a light regulatory touch compared with other states and countries. On Tuesday, Mark Mitchell, Tempe’s mayor, issued a statement saying Herzberg’s death “was tragic,” and added he supports Uber’s decision to suspend testing until “this event is fully examined and understood.”

Mitchell’s office said the mayor has not asked other autonomous vehicle companies to suspend testing in the city.

The outcome of the investigations in Arizona will be pivotal for the companies racing to profit from robo-taxi services and automated delivery vehicles. Among them: General Motors Co (GM.N), Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL.O) Waymo unit, ride services company Lyft, Ford Motor Co (F.N) and others.

Waymo earlier this month said it began operating self-driving vehicles in Arizona without human minders, offering rides to select customers. GM has said it plans to launch a robo-taxi service developed with its Cruise Automation unit next year.

Analysts and experts said the fatality involving Uber could slow progress toward deployment in the sector.

“What this incident indicates is that the state of autonomous driving (and especially Uber) is very far from where it needs to be to become market-ready,” Richard Windsor, technology analyst for London-based Edison Investment Research, said in a blog post Tuesday.

Additional reporting by Joseph White and Paul Lienert in Detroit and Sydney Maki in Tempe, Ariz.; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Matthew Lewis