Uber Crash Shows ‘Catastrophic Failure’ Of Self-Driving Technology, Experts Say
Concerns raised about future testing as footage suggests fatal collision in Arizona was failing of system’s most basic functions
By Sam T. Levin, THE GUARDIAN UK
March 22, 2018
Video of the first self-driving car crash that killed a pedestrian suggests a “catastrophic failure” by Uber’s technology, according to experts in the field, who said the footage showed the autonomous system erring on one of its most basic functions.
Days after a self-driving Uber SUV struck a 49-year-old pedestrian while she was crossing the street with her bicycle in Tempe, Arizona, footage released by police revealed that the vehicle was moving in autonomous mode and did not appear to slow down or detect the woman even though she was visible in front of the car prior to the collision. Multiple experts have raised questions about Uber’s Lidar technology, which is the system of lasers that the autonomous cars uses to “see” the world around them.
“This is exactly the type of situation that Lidar and radar are supposed to pick up,” said David King, an Arizona State University professor and transportation planning expert. “This is a catastrophic failure that happened with Uber’s technology.”
The videos of the car hitting Elaine Herzberg also demonstrated that the “safety driver” inside the car did not seem to be monitoring the road, raising concerns about the testing systems Uber and other self-driving car companies have deployed in cities across the US.
“This safety driver was not doing any safety monitoring,” said Missy Cummings, a Duke University engineering professor who has testified about the dangers of self-driving technology. Research has shown that humans monitoring an automated system are likely to become bored and disengaged, she said, which makes this current phase of semi-autonomous testing particularly dangerous.
“The problem of complacent safety drivers is going to be a problem for every company.”
The footage “strongly suggests a failure by Uber’s automated driving system and a lack of due care by Uber’s driver”, Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law school professor and autonomous vehicle expert, said in an email. He noted that the victim is visible about two seconds before the collision, saying: “This is similar to the average reaction time for a driver. That means an alert driver may have at least attempted to swerve or brake.”
The car was traveling at 38 miles per hour at 10pm on Sunday, according to the Tempe police chief, Sylvia Moir, who told a reporter that she thought the video showed Uber was not at fault. Experts who reviewed the footage, however, said the opposite appeared to be true.
“I really don’t understand why Lidar didn’t pick this up,” said Ryan Calo, a University of Washington law professor and self-driving expert. “This video does not absolve Uber.”
Even though the video appeared dark, King said there was likely more visibility than the footage suggested and noted that the darkness should not affect the car’s detection abilities.
“Shadows don’t matter to Lidar,” added Cummings. “There is no question it should have been able to see her.”
Police have emphasized that the victim was not in a crosswalk at the time of the crash, but experts said the technology still should have stopped the vehicle, a Volvo, and King noted that the exact section where Herzberg entered the street is a common area for pedestrians to cross near a local park.
John Simpson, the privacy and technology project director with Consumer Watchdog, said the video revealed a “complete failure” of Uber’s technology and its safety protocols, and said all testing programs on public roads should be suspended while the case is under investigation.
“Uber appears to be a company that has been rushing and taking shortcuts to get these things on the road,” said Simpson, noting that Arizona leaders lured the corporation to its state with promises of fewer regulations, after Uber fought with California over its vehicles running red lights. “It’s inexcusable.”
Uber, which temporarily suspended testing, declined to comment on the causes of the crash. A spokesperson said in a statement that the video was “disturbing and heartbreaking”, adding: “Our cars remain grounded, and we’re assisting local, state and federal authorities in any way we can.”