Uber self-driving car in fatal crash was not programmed to spot jaywalkers

Cockpit of autonomous car and AI(Artificial Intelligence). Driverless car. Self driving vehicle. UGV.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently shared its report on a March 2018 crash involving an Uber self-driving car that struck and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona. One of the findings in the more than 400-page report indicates that the autonomous vehicle was not programmed to recognize and react to jaywalkers.

Hertzberg was walking her bike across the street at night when she was struck by the Uber autonomous SUV. According to the NTSB, she was walking outside of a crosswalk. The report stated that the vehicle’s sensors identified Hertzberg and her bike. However, the computer didn’t recognize her as a hazard. ”The system design did not include a consideration for jaywalking pedestrians,” it states.

The Accident

The report detailed the accident saying that the vehicle’s radar sensors first detected Hertzberg 5.6 seconds before the impact and before she entered the car’s lane of travel. The system initially identified her as another vehicle. However, it did cycle through a number of classifications. Ultimately, the car failed to predict that she would cross into its path.

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Moreover, the safety driver of the vehicle was reportedly watching a video on a mobile device at the time. As Bloomberg points out, Uber had cut the number of its safety drivers from two to one five months prior to the accident. Other autonomous outfits, such as GM’s Cruise, still use two drivers.

Related: Uber posts $1.16B Q3 2019 loss, pledges change

While the NTSB’s report stopped short of assigning an official cause to the fatal accident, it plans to do so at a meeting in Washington D.C. on November 19. The board did, however, paint a somewhat disturbing picture of the safety culture at Uber.

Questionable Culture

According to the report, Uber’s autonomous vehicles took part in 37 crashes before the fatal accident. The firm’s self-driving technology didn’t figure into most of the wrecks. However, the few cases when it did also had disconcerting details involving bicycles.

In one, a car hit a bent post indicating a bicycle lane. In another, the autonomous vehicle didn’t react to an approaching car. The safety driver had to swerve out of the way, hitting a parked car. When speaking to investigators, the safety driver said that “sometimes the vehicle would swerve towards a bicycle.”

Furthermore, the Uber autonomous unit in Tempe didn’t have a formal safety plan or a standalone safety division. Nor did it have standard operating procedures or a person focused on averting accidents, the NTSB report stated. In place of such safety precautions, Uber promoted company-wide values to its employees like “do the right thing.”

“We deeply value the thoroughness of the NTSB’s investigation into the crash and look forward to reviewing their recommendations once issued after the NTSB’s board meeting later this month,” Uber said in a statement.

That may not be enough for advocacy groups like the Center for Auto Safety led by Jason Levine. “These are life and death consequences, not video game reset buttons for software developers,” Levine said. “I think they were playing fast and loose with people’s lives, and Elaine Hertzberg has paid the price.”