On Sunday evening, a self-driving Uber car struck and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg while she was crossing the street in Tempe, Arizona. The vehicle was in autonomous mode with a human safety driver at the wheel, and no passengers. The tragic case potentially marks the first known pedestrian death involving a self-driving car on a public road.
The incident comes as the company’s reputation struggles. 2017 was a bad year for Uber. Its woes began in February with the #DeleteUber protests, when over 200,000 people deleted their Uber accounts in outrage after the company turned off surge pricing for trips to New York’s JFK Airport during the immigration ban protests. By May, the company was fending off lawsuits, workplace harassment allegations, strings of bad press following scandalous leaked videos and the resignation of cofounder and then CEO Travis Kalanick in June 2017.
It’s no wonder that the new-age taxi service debuted at #76 on The Harris Poll’s 2018 Reputation Quotient study, which ranks the 100 most visible corporate brands in descending order of reputation. Uber bagged a “fair” reputation with an RQ score of 67.64 (Amazon.com has the highest/excellent RQ score of 83.22 and Takata the lowest/critical RQ score of 45.17).
Last year, Uber’s new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, took a positive outlook on the company’s series of unfortunate events. “While the impulse may be to say that this is unfair, one of the lessons I’ve learned over time is that change comes from self-reflection,” he said after London’s transportation regulator refused to renew Uber’s license to operate in the city. “So it’s worth examining how we got here. The truth is there is a high cost to a bad reputation.”
Uber has responded to Herzberg’s death in Arizona by suspending testing of its self-driving cars in Tempe, and around the U.S. and Canada. The fatality is a big blow to the nascent and ill-regulated autonomous car industry, casting doubt on their claims that self-driving cars will be safer than regular cars because they eliminate human errors.