(Adds lawmakers' letter to Uber and other automakers on legal issue)
By David Schwartz
PHOENIX, Ariz, March 22 (Reuters) - The daughter of the woman killed by an Uber self-driving vehicle in Arizona has retained a personal injury lawyer, underlying the potential high stakes of the first fatality caused by an autonomous vehicle.
The law firm of Bellah Perez in Glendale, Arizona, said in a statement on Thursday it was representing the daughter of Elaine Herzberg, who died on Sunday night after being hit by the Uber self-driving SUV in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe.
"As the first pedestrian death involving an Uber autonomous vehicle, the incident has sparked a national debate about the safety of self-driving cars, exposing the technology's blind spots and raising questions of liability," the law firm said.
The firm did not immediately return phone calls seeking more information.
Fall-out from the accident could stall the development and testing of self-driving vehicles, which are designed to perform far better than human drivers and sharply reduce the number of motor vehicle fatalities that occur each year.
The fatality also presents an unprecedented liability challenge because self-driving vehicles, which are still in the development stage, involve a complex system of hardware and software often made by outside suppliers. The specifics of how Uber's technology operates are not known.
On Thursday a group of 10 Democratic senators cited the fatality in Tempe in a letter sent to Uber and 59 other companies including Ford Motor Co and Tesla Inc highlighting how the use of forced arbitration clauses to settle customer disputes would prevent victims of accidents involving self-driving vehicles from exercising their legal rights.
The senators, led by Richard Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, noted that Uber includes forced arbitration in its standard terms of service with users.
"Had the victim been a passenger ... the victim's family could have been denied recourse through the courts," the letter read. The senators asked the companies to commit to not using the arbitration clauses in contracts related to self-driving cars.
"When injury or death does occur, a forced arbitration clause would prevent consumers from exercising their fundamental legal rights as Americans," the senators wrote.
Many companies include forced arbitration clauses in contracts with customers, requiring that any disputes be settled in binding arbitration and barring customers from suing in a court of law. Arbitration rulings, generally, cannot be appealed.
Herzberg, 49, who was homeless, was jay-walking across a divided four-lane road with her bicycle when she was struck while in the far right-hand lane. A video taken from a dash-mounted camera inside the vehicle that was released by Tempe police on Wednesday showed the SUV traveling along a dark street when suddenly the headlights illuminate Herzberg in front of the SUV.
She later died from her injuries.
Other footage showed the human driver who was behind the wheel mostly looking down and not at the road in the seconds before the accident.
Uber, like many other companies testing self-driving vehicles, has a human driver in each vehicle as a monitor and to act as a backup if necessary.
Few details of the incident have emerged amid the investigations by police and federal safety regulators. Police have said the vehicle, a Volvo XC90 which was operating in autonomous mode, was traveling at about 40 mile per hour (65 km per hour) at the time of the collision and did not appear to brake.
Police have said that following their probe, they will submit the case to the Maricopa County Attorney's office, which will determine if there is any basis for a case for potential criminal prosecution.
One key question for investigators will be how the vehicle's technology failed to notice the pedestrian crossing the street in front of it, despite the darkness. Self-driving cars typically use a combination of sensors, including radar and light-sensing Lidar, to identify objects, including potential obstacles coming into range.
In company presentations, Uber has stated its self-driving technology includes sensors that provide a 360-degree view around the vehicle. (Writing by Alexandria Sage; Additional reporting by David Shepardson in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Leslie Adler)