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Woman struck and killed by self-driving Uber vehicle

A still image taken from video provided by ABC-15 showed investigators at the scene of a fatal accident involving a self-driving Uber car and a woman crossing a street, who may have been walking with a bicycle, in Tempe, Ariz.
A still image taken from video provided by ABC-15 showed investigators at the scene of a fatal accident involving a self-driving Uber car and a woman crossing a street, who may have been walking with a bicycle, in Tempe, Ariz.(ABC-15.com via Associated Press)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — A self-driving Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in a Phoenix suburb in the first fatality involving a fully autonomous test vehicle, prompting the ride-hailing company Monday to suspend all road-testing of such autos in the United States and Canada.

Depending on who is found to be at fault, the accident could have far-reaching consequences for the development of self-driving vehicles, which have been billed as potentially safer than human drivers.

The Volvo was in self-driving mode with a human operator behind the wheel when a woman walking outside a crosswalk in Tempe on Sunday night was hit, police said. The woman, identified as Elaine Herzberg, 49, died at a hospital.

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Uber suspended all of its self-driving vehicle testing in the Phoenix area, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Toronto.

The testing has been going on for months as automakers and technology companies compete to be the first with the technology.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi expressed condolences on his Twitter account and said the company is working with local law enforcement on the investigation.

The federal government has voluntary guidelines for companies that want to test autonomous vehicles, leaving much of the regulation up to states.

But Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao also has said technology and automobile companies need to allay public fears of self-driving vehicles, citing a poll showing that 78 percent of people fear riding in autonomous vehicles.

The number of states considering legislation related to autonomous vehicles gradually has increased each year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2017 alone, 33 states introduced legislation.

California is among those that require manufacturers to report any incidents to the motor vehicle department during the testing phase. As of early March, the agency received 59 such reports.

In Boston, officials have asked local self-driving car companies to halt their ongoing testing in the Seaport District in the wake of the Arizona accident.

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The companies, Optimus Ride and nuTonomy, are both based in Boston and have been testing their technology in the city under an agreement with local officials.

“As a precautionary measure, we have temporarily asked Nutonomy and Optimus Ride to pause their autonomous vehicle testing programs on public streets in Boston,” said Gina Fiandaca, commissioner of the Boston Transportation Department. “The Boston Transportation Department will be working with both companies to review their safety procedures to ensure each program can move forward.”

NuTonomy declined to comment, and Optimus Ride did not immediately respond to a request to comment.

The companies are required to have two employees in the vehicle during all tests on public roads, one of whom is a “safety driver” to take over control of the car as needed. NuTonomy since last year has been offering a limited number of passengers rides around the neighborhood as part of a test with ride-hail company Lyft.

Neither company has reported an accident or serious safety issue on Boston’s streets. In reports to the city, each has said that drivers take over in certain situations, such as when encountering unexpected construction sites or when traffic is directed by a police officer.


Adam Vaccaro of the Globe staff contributed to this story.