As we careen toward a future of self-driving cars, there are bound to be some bumps along the way. However, running down pedestrians is not what most would consider an acceptable growing pain for the technology. Uber faced serious questions in 2018 when one of its experimental autonomous vehicles killed a pedestrian during testing. A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report claims that Uber’s self-driving technology simply wasn’t able to understand jaywalking pedestrians.
Uber’s self-driving cars use a combination of lidar, radar, and cameras to map the world around the car and recognize obstacles. One of Uber’s specially outfitted Volvo XC90 SUVs was testing this system in Tempe, AZ on the evening of March 18, 2018 when 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg crossed in front of it. There was a safety driver in the vehicle at the time, but reports indicate they were not watching the road. Herzberg survived the initial collision and was treated at a local hospital but died of her injuries later that night.
According to the NTSB investigation, Uber’s algorithms didn’t even realize that it might collide with Herzberg until 1.2 seconds prior to impact. Even if the car braked immediately, that would have been too late to avoid hitting Herzberg, but Uber’s software triggered a one-second braking delay so it could consider a possible steering correction. The NTSB also says Uber’s self-driving car system had no provisions for understanding a jaywalking person. It actually spotted Herzberg almost six seconds before the impact, but it didn’t do anything to avoid the collision because she wasn’t in a crosswalk — it just didn’t understand jaywalking was a thing.
The report cites two other instances where Uber’s vehicles may have failed to understand roadway hazards. Inone case, the vehicle ran into a bicycle lane post that had been bent into the roadway by a previous impact. In the other, a safety driver had to take control to steer away from an oncoming vehicle, colliding with a parked car.
Uber paused its autonomous car testing after the fatal accident, resuming it in December 2018 with redesigned software. The company claims that its new algorithms would have detected Herzberg 289 feet before impact and braked four seconds before impact. That would have been enough for the car to stop in time. The NTSB will meet on November 19th to determine an official cause of the accident. While Uber has been cleared of liability for the crash, police are still considering charges against the safety driver.
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