Design flaws in self-driving Uber car that killed jaywalker
A US National Transportation Safety Board’s reports details safety and design flaws in the software, but has not yet apportioned blame
Washington — The Uber Technologies self-driving test car that struck and killed a pedestrian in 2018 wasn’t programmed to recognise and react to jaywalkers, according to documents released by US safety investigators.
On Tuesday, the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released more than 400 pages of reports and supporting documents on the March 2018 crash that killed Elaine Herzberg as she walked her bicycle across a road at night in Tempe, Arizona.
The documents paint a picture of safety and design lapses with tragic consequences, but don’t assign a cause for the crash. The safety board is scheduled to do that at a November 19 meeting in Washington.
“We deeply value the thoroughness of the NTSB’s investigation into the crash and look forward to reviewing their recommendations once issued after the NTSB’s board meeting later in November,” the company said in a statement. The company said it regrets the incident and has made critical improvements to prioritise safety.
The case is being closely watched in the emerging industry of self-driving vehicles, a technology that has attracted billions of dollars in investment from companies such as General Motors (GM) and Alphabet in an attempt to transform transportation.
The report said “the system design did not include a consideration for jaywalking pedestrians”. Herzberg was crossing the road outside of a pedestrian crossing. The Uber vehicle’s radar sensors first observed Herzberg about 5.6 seconds prior to impact before she entered the vehicle’s lane of travel, and initially classified her as a vehicle. But the system changed its classification of her as different objects several times and failed to predict that her path would cross the lane of self-driving test SUV, according to the NTSB.
Uber made extensive changes to its self-driving system after several reviews of its operation and findings by NTSB investigators. The company told the NTSB that the new software would have been able to correctly identify Herzberg and triggered controlled braking to avoid her more than four seconds before the original impact, the NTSB said.
The safety driver behind the wheel of the car was watching a video on a mobile device and didn’t see Herzberg in time. Less than five months before the accident, Uber had cut back to a single safety driver in its test vehicles. Other companies, such as GM’s Cruise affiliate, use two.
The Uber Advanced Technologies Group unit that was testing self-driving cars on public streets in Tempe didn’t have a standalone safety division, a formal safety plan, standard operating procedures or a manager focused on preventing accidents, according to NTSB.
Instead, Uber had company-wide values it promoted to its employees, such as “do the right thing”, the NTSB said. The company, in its statement, said it had also had safety policies and procedures but not a formal safety plan.