Uber did not have a formal safety plan when one of his self-driving cars killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona last year, according to a number of new documents released by the National Traffic Safety Board on Tuesday. The autonomous vehicles were not programmed to respond to jay-walking people and the company had been involved in more than three dozen crashes prior to the accident in which the 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg died in March 2018.
These new details shed a bright light on Uber's self-driving vehicle program, which has resumed testing for the time being after the shutdown after the March 18 crash. And they set the stage for a potentially controversial hearing later this month when NTSB will determine the likely causes of the crash.
More than 400 pages of documents were released by NTSB, which sketches a picture of a company where security lapses, poor staff decisions and technical miscalculation came together in Tempe on a deadly night that has been reverberating in the AV industry ever since. Until the death of Herzberg, many companies that follow self-driving cars race to get them on the road as quickly as possible. But now most operators acknowledge that the timeline will be much longer than originally predicted. However, Uber is likely to avoid serious consequences because the local prosecutor in the case has said she refuses to report.
Part of what the board reports in these new documents was already known. According to a preliminary report about the crash that NTSB had released in May 2018, the Uber vehicle decided it had to brake for 1.3 seconds before it hit Herzberg, but the company had previously switched off the factory-set automatic emergency braking system of the SUV to prevent irregular driving.
Now we also know that the vehicle was just not that good at responding to other road users, especially those who are the most vulnerable. According to NTSB, the software installed in Uber's vehicles with which it can detect and classify other objects "did not include jaywalking pedestrians." 10:00 a.m. But it classified her as & # 39; other object & # 39 ;, not as a person.
"Because the (automated drive system) changed the pedestrian's classification several times – alternating between vehicle, bicycle and another – the system was unable to correctly predict the path of the detected object," the council report says.
Uber's decision to disable the built-in automatic emergency braking system of the Volvo SUV has been marked as a possible decline, but safety experts note that it is probably useful to prevent conflicts with the company's self-propelled system. However, the NTSB investigation showed that Uber had only built in a one-second delay between crash detection and action to prevent false positives.
Uber's vehicle detected Herzberg 5.6 seconds before the collision, but failed to brake because it always classified her incorrectly. Every time the automated drive system came up with a new classification, it had to calculate a new trajectory for the object. A & # 39; suppression of an action & # 39; in one second the manual control had to be returned to the driver for manual braking. But if the operator did not address the situation within that one-second period – what she did in this case – then the system is designed to give an auditory warning that a collision is imminent and a gradual (but not maximum) braking start process.
In the months following the crash, Uber dropped the action suppression and now applies maximum emergency brakes to prevent crashes. In this new setup, Uber says that the vehicle would have braked four seconds early, meaning that it would have prevented Herzberg from being killed.
The March 18 incident in Tempe was not the first time that Uber & # 39; s self-driving cars & # 39; s were involved in a crash. Between September 2016 and March 2018, Uber's autonomous vehicles were involved in 37 "accidents and incidents", while the board reports in autonomous mode. But Uber's cars were the "striking vehicle" in just two of those accidents; the majority concerned another vehicle that hit the autonomous car (33 of such incidents; 25 of them were rear-end accidents, and in eight accidents Uber's test vehicle was swept by another vehicle).
There were two incidents in which the Uber vehicle was more or less in default. In the first, the vehicle hit a curved bicycle lane that partially occupies its roadway. In the other incident, the safety driver took control of the vehicle to prevent a fast approaching vehicle from entering the ATG vehicle lane and hit a parked car. NTSB also reports two incidents in which Uber's vehicles were damaged by passing pedestrians while they stopped.
There was also a lack of adequate safety planning by Uber prior to the fatal crash, the board states. Uber's Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) had a technical system safety team, "but did not have an independent operational safety department or safety manager," the board said. "In addition, ATG had no formal safety plan, no standardized operational procedure (SOP), or safety guidelines."
Uber claims that it did have safety policies, procedures and engineering practices that could be considered as a total safety plan, but acknowledges that it has no formal plan at the time of the crash. Certainly, there is no federal rule obliging AV operators to have or submit safety plans to the government; there are only voluntary guidelines. Uber released its first safety report in November 2018.
The NTSB documents also contain notes from an interview with Uber safety rider Rafaela Vasquez. In the interview, she states that Uber's decision to reduce the number of safety operators in each vehicle from two to one "corresponded to the change in Uber's CEOs," adding that it "seemed more like a policy decision than an advance in technology. "
Dara Khosrowshahi took over as CEO of Uber after Travis Kalanick was expelled at the end of 2017. At the time, Khosrowshahi considered end the self-driving program but finally decided against it. Uber says the decision to reduce the safety operators in some vehicles from two to one preceded Khosrowshahi's arrival as CEO. Since the crash, the company has had two operators in each vehicle during testing.
"We regret the crash of March 2018 with one of our self-driving vehicles that has lost the life of Elaine Herzberg," said a spokesperson in response to NTSB documents. “After this tragedy, the Uber ATG team implemented critical program improvements to further prioritize safety. We attach great importance to the thoroughness of the NTSB investigation into the crash and look forward to reviewing their recommendations issued after the NTSB board meeting later this month. "