Uber Arizona fatality: NTSB says self-driving SUV’s automatic braking was disabled

Cornelia Mascio
Mag 25, 2018

Federal safety investigators have not given a cause for the crash. The company said it is focusing its efforts to build self-driving cars in that city as well as in San Francisco, although it didn't make a commitment to bring its robotic vehicles back to the streets of California, where it no longer has a permit to operate them after allowing its license in that state to expire earlier this year.

Investigators said that the self-driving Volvo XC90 equipped with Uber's sensors, cameras, and lidar that Vasquez was driving that night had automatic emergency braking, but it wasn't activated in the minutes leading up to the crash. "Uber's self-driving vehicle suspension remains in place".

The NTSB's preliminary report raises multiple questions about the company's autonomous system as well as the actions of the safety driver and the pedestrian felled in the crash. Data from the vehicle shows the autonomous system first registered LIDAR and radar observations of the pedestrian around 6 seconds prior to impact.

"At 1.3 seconds before impact, the self-driving system determined that an emergency braking maneuver was needed to mitigate a collision", the report states. The emergency braking system built by Volvo attempted to trigger emergency braking 1.3 seconds before the crash, unlike the driver, who began to brake less than a second before striking the pedestrian. The NTSB, without comment, outlined the inherent disconnect in Uber's procedures.

It said Uber's system "is not created to alert the operator", who is expected "to intervene and take action" in an emergency.

The company use its driver app to alert human drivers when they are exceeding speed limits, so human drivers adhere to speed limits as well.

Uber told the NTSB that these features were disabled in self-driving mode to reduce the potential for "erratic vehicle behavior". The safety-first approach that AV developers should rightly be adopting when dealing with hazards will naturally turn up a lot of false positives.

A diagram in the NTSB report shows that the Uber system determined that the SUV needed to brake when it was at least 20 metres from Herzberg; it was travelling 63 kilometres per hour at impact. "We're easily distracted, and we have slower reaction times", Samaras added. The vehicle was traveling at 39mph at the time of the crash.

Uber's self-driving Volvo SUV, which observed Herzberg six seconds before the crash, didn't know " what " she was at first.

Michael Medina, a Tempe products liability attorney with Davis Miles McGuire Gardner PLLC said it's possible that Vasquez could end up being cited with a traffic violation because of the lack of attentiveness to the road she displays in the crash video. Her bicycle did not have side reflectors, the organization points out; while front and rear reflectors were fitted, along with a headlamp, they were not pointing in the direction the Uber SUV was traveling. The safety board said the software was functioning normally and "there were no faults or diagnostic messages".

In a Wednesday statement, Uber said its self-driving cars will return to Pittsburgh this summer.

"This lesson has been written in blood over and over and over again", said Cummings, director of the university's Humans and Autonomy Lab. "The goal of the vehicle operator is to closely monitor and intervene [when needed], and that absolutely includes the emergency system".

The report confirms what we've already seen, that the operator was looking down and not at the road until it was too late. And the communications between vision and braking systems can be fuzzy and fail for a variety of reasons, she said. "This is why we need to be careful about putting these cars on the road before we work these issues out", Cummings said.

Uber has officially ended its self-driving program in Arizona two months after the fatal accident involving one of its cars.

In talks with company officials, I and the city's Department of Mobility and Infrastructure additionally required conditions with Uber before Pittsburgh would agree to testing.

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