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After establishing itself as the biggest name in ride-sharing apps, Uber wasted no time in moving into the hottest new area in both tech and autos: self-driving cars. Uber wants to develop fleets of fully autonomous hailable vehicles and even self-driving trucks for interstate shipping. However, Uber’s self-driving vehicle program hit a massive roadblock earlier this month when one of its vehicles caused the world’s first fatal accident caused by a self-driving vehicle. Not exactly the kind of milestone that’s good for PR. Following the accident, whistleblowers at Uber revealed that engineers were encouraged to boost executives’ confidence in the program even when they were struggling to operate their cars safely. In the wake of those revelations, Uber has now reached a settlement with the victim’s family. Is this too little, too late, or can Uber rescue its self-driving program’s reputation from the septic tank of public opinion?
The husband and daughter of the late Elaine Herzberg launched a legal battle against Uber after Herzberg’s death. And why wouldn’t they? Not only did a self-driving Uber vehicle strike and kill Herzberg without even slowing down, but Uber’s human backup driver was found to be distracted at the time and not even watching the road.
The terms and amount of the settlement remain undisclosed, and lawyers on both sides are remaining tight-lipped about the settlement. Cristina Perez Hesano, a Glendale, Arizona attorney who represented Herzberg’s family, said simply “the matter has been resolved” and refused to give further comment or even name her clients.
While this settlement will likely shortly be forgotten in the constant torrent of both self-driving car and Uber news, it’s important to remember Herzberg’s death, not only for the tragic toll it took on one grieving Tempe family, but also for the fact that it was the first human death directly caused by a robot. Centuries from now, when humanity has either succumbed to or eradicated the robot threat, Herzberg’s death may be remembered as the first shot across the bow in what would become the struggle to end all struggles. Of course, it could also likely be remembered as merely an unfortunate blip in what would trigger a worldwide revolution in how humans move and spend their time. Time will tell.