Disclosures that Uber failed to account for jaywalkers – with fatal results in Tempe, Ariz., In March 2018 – raises many objections from critics accusing companies like Uber of rushing to deploy vehicles that are not ready for public use streets. They are skeptical that carmakers who are eager to lead in industry-transforming technology are doing enough to avoid another tragedy as they continue to test cars in the real world.
"Even the youngest human driver knows to expect people to sometimes walk off the footpath," said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit. "When we have public road testing that has programming that essentially chooses to ignore the realities of how people interact with public infrastructure is really dangerous. "
The larger question to Levine: Can similar severe oversight bother other models across the self-driving industry? [1
Levine said he wants to see federal regulation.
Uber has done "critical program improvements" in the wake of Elaine Herzberg's death, spokeswoman Sarah Abboud said in a statement, the company's system is now capable of handling scenarios like kayaking where people or cyclists does not follow road rules, she added, although human drivers may still need to intervene at times.
She declined to say how long Uber had been aware of the inability to recognize a pedestrian outside a crossroads and said the company was not commenting on the details of the investigation because it was ongoing.
"We greatly appreciate the thoroughness of NTSB's investigation into the crash and look forward to reviewing their recommendations once issued after NTSB's board meeting later this month," Abboud said in a statement.
The accident that spurred the inquiry is believed to be the first fatality related to autonomous vehicle testing. A man was sitting in the driver's seat, but it did not stop the car from crashing into Herzberg near a busy intersection, according to authorities. Herzberg was beaten when she crossed the street and died in a hospital.
Several factors contributed to the crash, NTSB documents show. Herzberg would probably have been alive if Uber had not blocked his car from using a built-in automatic emergency brake, the board found, although it would not decide on the cause of death before the meeting later in November.
Another major problem was the software's inability to identify a person in the vehicle's field of vision and its failure to predict how they would move in the vehicle's path. Uber's system perceived Herzberg as a vehicle, a bicycle and an "unknown object" in the seconds before the collision, according to the preliminary report.
The death stopped Uber's test as a score for companies, including Google and General Motors, explored self-driving technology and drew strong reactions from many experts who warned of a need to keep vehicles out in public to stricter standards. But others argued that cars cannot be fine-tuned without real-world driving experience.
Nine months later, Uber resumed trial runs in Pittsburgh. The company hopes to bring its self-driving cars back to other cities like San Francisco, Abboud said Wednesday. But for now, it's focused on using human drivers to collect data on the particular sites so that it can incorporate that information into testing in controlled environments, she said.
Arizona was particularly hospitable to companies seeking to test young autonomous technologies in the years leading up to Herzberg's death. Before the crash, Prime Minister Doug Ducey (R) said he welcomed Uber's self-driving cars "with open arms and wide open roads," while criticizing California for stifling such testing with "more bureaucracy and more regulation."
pedestrians are not unique to Uber's self-driving cars, said Jamie Court, who as president of the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog has been critical of companies' willingness to deploy the technology. Across the line, he said, there are many autonomous vehicles struggling to navigate more than 10 or 20 miles without human interference, though some standouts like Google's car can do that much longer.
He said NTSB's findings about Uber's technology are particularly alarming.
"Robot cars would do well to drive in a world of robots, but not on roads and crossings where humans are right," the court said.