The death of a pedestrian after a crash involving a self-driving Uber test vehicle adds to the ride-hailing company’s global problems. ANDREW HARRER, BLOOMBERG
The death of a pedestrian after a crash involving a self-driving Uber test vehicle adds to the ride-hailing company’s global problems. ANDREW HARRER, BLOOMBERG

BMW’s director of development has said the fatal self-driving Uber crash was "inevitable", insisting the ride-sharing company technology was never advanced enough to safely drive autonomously.

Speaking at the BMW Group Annual Accounts conference, Klaus Fröhlich insisted Level 4 and Level 5 autonomy simply can’t be done safely with current technology. "At the moment, with the quality and ability of the sensors and the computer processing speed and performance, there is no possibility to have highly autonomous cars without accidents," he says.

One of Uber’s fleet of Volvo XC90 SUVs, with controlling software modified by Uber, struck a female pedestrian on a road in Arizona and killed her. The company had its Californian automated vehicle licence revoked midway through 2016 for repeatedly refusing to comply with its restrictions.

In a statement that looks extremely bad today, Arizona’s Republican Governor tweeted that, "This is what OVER-regulation looks like!" and invited Uber to develop self-driving technology on his state’s roads.

THIS WEEK UBER PULLED OUT OF SOUTH-EAST ASIA, SELLING ITS OPERATIONS TO RIVAL GRAB IN EXCHANGE FOR A 27.5% STAKE IN THE COMPANY.

Elaine Herzberg, 49, was struck as she attempted to cross a road while pushing a bicycle in Tempe, Arizona, and was hit by the car, travelling at 65km/h in a 70km/h zone, as it was operating in "autonomous mode". The Uber prototype neither braked nor took any avoiding action, according to Tempe police.

Uber suspended its autonomous vehicle fleet in response to the crash.

Uber was not just testing cars and SUVs like the XC90 in Arizona, but its autonomous heavy trucks have been real-world testing since late 2017. The trucks all had human drivers ready to take over in an incident, but with a view to eliminating all human help on the way to full Level 5 autonomy.

Fröhlich, though, repeated the suggestion that the Volvo wasn’t fitted with either the sensor or processing technology to deliver safe autonomy, particularly lacking a thermal-imaging camera. BMW’s most senior engineer insisted the less frantic pace of autonomous development in Europe was safer for everybody concerned than some of the less-regulated states of the US.

BMW itself is embarking on Level 5 (full autonomous) tests with its major fleet customers in Hamburg but "only if and where we know we are very secure. We have covered 250-million kilometres in validation before we start on the road (to Level 5), so this accident doesn’t mean a lot for us in technical development," Fröhlich said.

It will break that down to 20-million real-world kilometres with the extra 230-million kilometres run on a virtual test programme in a supercomputer.

Klaus Fröhlich, member of the board of management of BMW for Development. Picture: SUPPLIED
Klaus Fröhlich, member of the board of management of BMW for Development. Picture: SUPPLIED

"In a dedicated space for only autonomous vehicles, it is easier to anticipate what other vehicles and traffic will do. This makes it easier to programme vehicle reflexes and may even allow a car to have fewer sensors and less processing power than a vehicle which needs to navigate normal traffic with things like bicycle couriers." he said.

BMW has a collaboration with self-driving technology suppliers Intel and MobilEye (which Fiat Chrysler Group joined late in 2016) and was a founder partner (with Audi and Mercedes-Benz’s parent Daimler) of the buyout of Nokia’s Here digital-mapping service.

While Audi insists its new A6, A7 and A8 models are all capable of Level 3 self-driving (where the driver is always considered to be in control, though the car can do the driving outside heavily built-up areas) and Mercedes-Benz’s E-Class, CLS and S-Class claim borderline Level 2/Level 3, BMW does not.

Its first Level 3-capable car will be its iNext electric car in 2020, though (like Audi and Mercedes-Benz) Fröhlich insists the self-driving technology actually switched on in the production car would depend on each region’s legislation.

BMW has more than 50 LiDar-equipped Level 4 and Level 5 test cars running in Germany, California and Israel.

The incident is likely to lead to an extremely significant legal debate in both the criminal and civil courts, made even more complicated by Uber’s erratic relationship with corporate ethics. In October 2016, it paid hackers $100,000 to cover up the cyber attack that compromised the personal and credit data of 57-million customers, but it wasn’t the first time scandal visited on the company.

IT PAID HACKERS TO COVER UP THE CYBER ATTACK THAT COMPROMISED THE PERSONAL AND CREDIT DATA OF 57-MILLION CUSTOMERS.

It was accused of price gouging after charging passengers double the rate during Hurricane Sandy in New York in 2012.

It was sued by its own drivers in 2013.

It employed drivers with criminal records.

It used "burner" phones to undermine rival companies Lyft and Gett in 2014.

A senior executive proposed hiring investigators to dig up dirt on reporters who criticised the company.

It was banned in Delhi, India, in 2014 following allegations one of its drivers raped a passenger.

It was fined $20,000 for tracking a Buzzfeed reporter’s movements in 2014.

In 2016 the company was forced to pay $28.5m to settled two lawsuits after it mislead 25-million customers about its safety standards.

In February 2017, it was blasted by its own major investors in an open letter criticising its internal culture.

The same month, the firm was sued by Google’s Waymo ride-sharing service for stealing its laser technology for its autonomous cars.

Still in the same month, the firm’s CEO was caught on camera in a fight with one of his own drivers.

In May 2017, the New York Times published an article showing the company used a software tool called "Greyball" to track and evade officials from cities like Boston, Paris and Las Vegas. Its primary goal was to skirt police and government officials in cities where the company had been banned.

The US department of justice opened an investigation into the programme.

It also got into trouble with Apple in April the same year, which threatened to pull Uber from the App store for sneaking a piece of code into its app that could track phones, even if all the data had been erased.

Also in May, a US Federal judge ordered former Google engineer, Anthony Levandowski, to stop working on Uber’s autonomous car programme, citing the dispute with Waymo. He was ultimately fired.

Still in May, it was forced to repay tens of millions of dollars to its New York drivers after being caught underpaying them for years.

It fired 20 managers in June for bad behaviour after bringin g in a management coach.

Still in June, it fired its head of Asian business after he was caught carrying around the medical records of its Delhi rape victim and showing them to other senior managers.

The justice department has announced it had opened another probe into Uber, for violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it illegal to pay foreign government officials to gain business. It cited Indonesia and Malaysia.

It lost its licence to operate in London last September, with Greyball as the smoking gun.

This week Uber effectively pulled out of south-east Asia, selling its operations to rival Grab in exchange for a 27.5% stake in the company.

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