Distracted Driver and Braking Error Are Cited in Autonomous Uber Car’s Fatal Crash

Distracted Driver and Braking Error Are Cited in Autonomous Uber Car’s Fatal Crash

SAN FRANCISCO — More than a second earlier than a self-driving automobile operated by Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in March, the automobile’s pc system decided it wanted to brake to keep away from a crash. But a built-in emergency braking system had been disabled whereas the automobile was in autonomous mode to make sure a smoother journey, based on the preliminary report of federal regulators investigating the crash.

The preliminary findings, launched on Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board, confirmed early police experiences concerning the episode, which was the primary recognized pedestrian fatality involving an autonomous automobile.

The report additionally affirmed what many specialists on self-driving automobiles mentioned in the times after the crash: Uber’s automobiles are loaded with sensors and cameras that ought to have detected a pedestrian with loads of time to cease. But this one failed via a mixture of a pc system not responding correctly to the pedestrian’s presence and a distracted security driver.

The security board mentioned the Uber automobile’s pc system noticed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg pushing a bicycle across a road at evening in Tempe, Ariz., six seconds earlier than influence. The system categorized Ms. Herzberg, who was not in a crosswalk, first as an unrecognized object, then as one other automobile and lastly as a bicycle. But it didn’t decelerate earlier than barreling into her at 39 miles per hour. The automobile’s software program system just isn’t designed to alert the motive force of an object in the street.

The Uber automobile, a Volvo XC90 sport-utility automobile geared up with Uber’s sensing know-how, comes with an computerized emergency braking system from the producer.

But Uber disabled that perform in addition to different security options to “reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior,” based on the report. This put the onus on the security driver to intervene to keep away from a crash if mandatory. The company mentioned Uber’s security driver, who was not impaired, grabbed the steering wheel in an try to swerve on the final second however didn’t begin braking till after influence.

The automobile’s operator, who was seen on dashboard cameras wanting down and away from the street earlier than the crash, advised investigators that she had been monitoring the self-driving automobile system in the middle of the automobile’s dashboard. A toxicology report for the sufferer got here again optimistic for methamphetamine and marijuana, investigators mentioned, although they didn’t say medicine performed an element in the crash.

While the security board’s preliminary report didn’t decide fault, it pointed to situations the place Uber’s testing system failed to stop the crash.

“The circumstances of the crash was certainly damning, and this report documents it,” mentioned Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor of regulation on the University of South Carolina, who specializes in know-how and regulation. “Many of the issues raised in the report lead right back to Uber and Uber’s testing program as a legitimate target of criticism.”

The deadly crash has raised questions concerning the security of testing self-driving automobiles on public roads and whether or not firms, in their rush to be among the many first to deploy this breakthrough know-how, are taking sufficient precautions to stop hurt to different drivers and pedestrians. It has additionally dampened some enthusiasm for self-driving automobiles as a know-how that researchers imagine may ultimately save lives as a result of robotic drivers, in contrast to people, don’t get distracted or drained and obey site visitors guidelines.

The New York Times reported that Uber’s automobiles had been struggling to meet reliability standards in Arizona earlier than the crash. Its automobiles required human drivers to intervene rather more incessantly than these of its opponents. Uber was additionally asking security drivers to do extra — driving solo as an alternative of in pairs — regardless that the automobiles had been nonetheless performing erratically.

Mary Cummings, an engineering professor at Duke University who research the interplay between people and autonomous autos, mentioned there was “a lack of maturity” in Uber’s testing program as a result of it was asking the drivers to do an excessive amount of. The firm made it onerous for them to give attention to their major activity: guaranteeing security.

Sarah Abboud, an Uber spokeswoman, mentioned the corporate had labored intently with investigators over the past two months. It has began a evaluation of its self-driving automobile program and plans to announce modifications to its security procedures in the approaching weeks. Uber has introduced on Christopher A. Hart, a former chairman of the security board, as an adviser on its “overall safety culture.”

Immediately after the crash, Uber suspended testing of its self-driving automobiles and has not but returned to the street.

On Wednesday, the corporate mentioned it was shutting down its testing operations in Arizona and shedding 300 workers, saying it wished to maneuver testing nearer to its engineering hubs in Pittsburgh and San Francisco. Uber additionally mentioned it hoped to return to the street in Pittsburgh by the summer time. The firm has not mentioned when it hopes the autonomous automobiles will return to San Francisco.

But even politicians who as soon as welcomed self-driving automobiles onto their roads are putting a extra cautious tone. William Peduto, Pittsburgh’s mayor, mentioned the town would require Uber’s automobiles keep underneath 25 miles per hour, whatever the street’s pace restrict.

Still, the crash hasn’t considerably altered the deployment or testing plans for Uber’s rivals.

Waymo, the self-driving automobile firm spun out from Google, has been testing automobiles with no security driver in Arizona, the place additionally it is choosing up passengers as a part of a check deployment of an autonomous taxi service. Waymo mentioned it anticipated to begin accepting fares for its self-driving taxis this yr. And Cruise, a self-driving automobile firm owned by GM, has continued testing in California.


An earlier model of the article misstated when the security driver in an autonomous Uber automobile that fatally struck a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz., tried to begin braking. It was lower than a second after influence, not lower than a second earlier than.

Follow Daisuke Wakabayashi on Twitter: @daiwaka.

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