First autonomous vehicle fatality

Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor

A pedestrian who was walking her bicycle across the road died after being struck by a self-driving Uber SUV in autonomous mode in Tempe, Arizona on March 18, at about 10 p.m. local time. The victim, Elaine Herzberg, was rushed to the hospital where she died as a result of her injuries.

Following this incident, Uber has paused on-road testing at other locations including Arizona, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto.

This crash comes right after the reports of a crash between an Uber self-driving car with another car in Pittsburgh, on Feb. 24, where no one was hurt, but both cars suffered some damage.

According to experts, this crash not only shows the failure of Uber’s self-driving vehicle technology but also of its backup plans — the human test driver in the car, who should have been paying attention and be able to react to the pedestrian even when the car wasn’t able to.

In a video released by Tempe police, the exterior camera reveals that the victim had crossed at least one lane on the road, and seems to appear out of a dark, shadowy area through which visibility to the human eye is admittedly limited. However, the interior camera reveals that the test driver — who is supposed to be paying attention to the car at all times — was looking down at something on their lap. Just seconds before the crash, the driver looks up and realizes their negligence.

Uber’s self-driving cars use three systems to provide a 360 degree view of the car’s surroundings — the radar sensors, the LIDAR and the forward camera array. In this situation, with dry weather and assuming all sensors were working perfectly, the primary detecting sensor mechanism should have been the LIDAR — which essentially uses lasers to locate obstacles in the car’s path.

Missy Cummings, an engineering professor and director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University explains in a video released by CNN, “The darkness, the shadows — these should not have any effect on the LIDAR’s ability to pick out an obstacle in this field [of view].” The car in the accident, which was in autonomous mode didn’t seem to slow down or change paths, which means that it didn’t register the person at all or decided that she wasn’t an obstacle.

In fact, more recently Uber’s internal company documents, obtained by The New York Times, suggest that Uber has significant ground to cover to meet its opponents’ progress. While Uber’s cars have been struggling to meet its target of covering an average of 13 miles before human intervention, Uber’s rival Waymo cars — Google’s self-driving car giant — can reportedly cover an average of 5600 miles before needing human intervention.
Uber has recently been the recipient of much bad publicity. After public outcry over Uber’s company culture — that was hostile to women and exploited and underpaid workers — Uber was forced to change leadership. Then, Waymo sued Uber over charges of intellectual theft.

Clearly, for a company that spends so much of its time in bad light, something is to be said about the culture of work at Uber and the kind of example that they set for a company that is supposedly “leading” the future for a future of self-driving cars.