Way back when you took your driver's license and got your license, someone gave you a lecture on responsibility. Maybe it was your parents, the driving instructor or the DMV tester. You were responsible for the car, so it was your responsibility not to crash it.
You probably haven't had that lecture in a while, but it's still true. Someone must always be responsible for all moving vehicles. There is a basic foundation for driving, flying, flying forklifts, biking, or hell, even walking. If you come across someone else, you are responsible.
There are many inhibitions and hawing about how autonomous vehicles can make this question of responsibility more complicated. They will not. Or at least they shouldn't. Some like to pretend that they present a far more complex responsibility matrix about Who is responsible when something goes wrong and hardly invokes relevant philosophical thought experiments in the process to make it all seem like a different problem than it is. But regardless of whether the driver of the vehicle is a person or computer, there is still someone in charge.
However, you would not know that the woman from Tuesday's hearing on the National Safety Board about Elaine Herzberg's death struck and killed Uber's self-driving test vehicle in March 201
The NTSB identified "security problems" with Uber's "defective safety culture", which has been well documented as just one of the many causes. But it also pinned the strain on Uber's safety driver for not paying attention – a separate question from how the self-driving cars were programmed and how management designed the testing process to prioritize "measurements" as miles run to impress the new boss before safety – and on public agencies such as the Arizona Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for not adopting stricter regulations or mandatory safety reporting.
NTSB even discovered that Herzberg herself was partly responsible for not crossing the street at a junction – never mind that the bike path she was walking spit her out in the middle of the block – and had drugs in her system at the time of the crash, a fact which in its most charitable interpretation means that Herzberg was not awake enough to dive out of the way of the Uber SUV before impact.
Here is NTSB's entire "Probable Cause" Statement:
The National Transportation Safety Board states that the probable cause of the crash in Tempe, Arizona, was the driver's lack of control over the driving environment and the operation of the automated driving system because she was visually distracted through Uber Advanced Technologies Group's (1) faulty safety risk assessment procedures, (2) ineffective supervision of vehicle operators, and (3) lack of adequate mechanisms to address operators' automatic complacency – all a consequence of faulty safety culture. Factors contributing to the crash were (1) the impaired pedestrian crossing of N. Mill Avenue off a crossroads, and (2) the Arizona Department of Transportation's inadequate automated vehicle testing
In sum, the NTSB concluded that the blame was primarily on the security driver, a contractor hired by Uber to monitor the software that drives the car. Uber's flawed safety culture was related to a "contributing" factor to the crash. Herzberg's behavior and the Arizona Department of Transportation's lack of AV taste control are also name-checked.
This attitude that there is plenty of guilt to go around was in keeping with the general tone of the hearing, one of respect and sometimes even praise for Uber. This may sound strange because the NTSB investigation concluded that the company's workers were a cause of the crash. But on several occasions, NTSB members did not implicitly repudiate Uber, but praised the company for its actions after the crash, as if the company was completely separate from it after Hertzberg's death. They were very good sports about it all.
The summary notes of NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt characterized his general approach. "Uber ATG has really taken lessons from this incident, from this tragic event," Sumwalt said. "Uber has really embraced these lessons, and we want to encourage them to continue on that journey, and we want others to learn from that as well."
You could almost hear the underlying feeling, the one he so obviously wanted to say, that we are all wrong.
Meanwhile, the NTSB was never very clear on what Uber's journey consisted of or what cultural changes the company made other than requiring two safety drivers instead of one (would have made a difference during the 5.6 seconds the driver had to save the life of Herzberg?). Although Sumwalt stated during his opening remarks that he hopes other AV companies learn from this, it was not at all clear what he hopes they learn.
Hearing synchronization includes absolutely no hints. It includes recommendations to NHTSA, the state of Arizona, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, and finally, to Uber, which is below in its entirety:
Complete the implementation of an automated vehicle safety testing system that includes at least safety policy , security risk management, security security and security promotion.
These "recommendations", boring to the point of banality, are Homer Simpson-esque in the absence of substance, as if repeating the word "security" will probably do the job.
To be clear, the NTSB has no power to actually punish anyone. It conducts surveys and makes recommendations, although they certainly have the right to make them better.
But the NTSB's cuddle with Uber – in a not-so-obscured jab at Elon Musk, thanks to Sumwalt Uber CEO for not hanging on to him – would only be a curious curiosity if it wasn't symbolic of the structural failure to hold Uber accountable in a meaningful way for Herzberg's death. Prosecutors refused to indict Uber for any criminal misconduct. Herzberg's family reached an undisclosed settlement with the company less than two weeks after the crash before many of the underlying facts about the case emerged.
Finally, the security driver is the person who can end up being held most responsible in all this. The prosecutors have not ruled out accusing her, and she was the only person mentioned in the NTSB's probable cause statement.
To be sure, the security driver is far from blameless. She occasionally watched clips from The Voice on the smartphone that was under the wheel within minutes of the crash. She was unaware of the road. It may have saved someone's life.
But that's just it; The safety driver's role is to save lives before being taken, not to drive the car. It is a grateful and inevitably doomed task when sitting in a car driven by a bad computer program. Confronting the safety driver as the operator of the vehicle, as NTSB does when it refers to it as "the operator," is a categorical error. She didn't drive the car, it was the computer. This was not a mistake, but the purpose.
At the core here, apart from Uber's series of decisions to put cars driven by computers with unacceptably high error rates on the road, Uber's ignorance – or intentional termination of – was a decade of research showing that humans do not share responsibility with computers well researches the rival Waymo had embraced and learned from the years before . Waymo, armed with much of the same information and technology as Uber, decided it would not take the risk. So did Uber.
Someone must always have control of the car. When that car is run by a computer program, the company that makes that program is in control. When that computer program is very bad for driving cars, no one is in control. Even a human backup driver can't make up for it.
The most cynical interpretation of the safety driver's role in all of this is one of the lighthouses of the fall. In this interpretation, they are there just to get blamed in case something goes wrong. I don't know if I'm willing to go that far, but if that was the plan all along, the Uber crash suggests it was good. After all, Uber is legally ready, having paid almost no price both legally and financially for this disaster. They even got an attaboy from the crash scientists for saying all the right things. The security driver can still go to jail.