Uber’s self-driving car detected pedestrian 6 seconds before fatal crash

Friday, 25 May, 2018

Alain Kornhauser, faculty chairman of autonomous vehicle engineering at Princeton University, told the Associated Press that Uber likely determined in testing that its system braked in situations it shouldn't have, possibly for overpasses, signs and trees.

One reason Uber would have disabled automatic emergency braking in its self-driving cars is to avoid what can be a herky-jerky ride when the cars' cameras or sensors keep seeing potential problems ahead and initiate braking, experts said.

Uber also disabled the Volvo's factory-equipped automatic emergency braking system when the vehicle is in autonomous mode, the report said.

Uber's self-driving Volvo SUV, which observed Herzberg six seconds before the crash, didn't know " what " she was at first.

At 1.3 seconds before the crash, the self-driving system realized emergency braking was needed to prevent a crash.

The operator was looking away from the road for long stretches in the time before the crash, according to an internal video showing her that was released by police.

When Uber's vehicles exit autonomous mode, which happens when the driver brakes, steers, or hits a special button, an audible alert sounds in the auto and a message will appear on the diagnostic readout on the dash.

William Wallace, senior policy analyst for Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports, called Uber "reckless" and said the NTSB report "makes it clear that a self-driving auto was tested on public roads when it wasn't safe enough to be there, and it killed a pedestrian".

According to the report, Uber operators are responsible for monitoring diagnostic messages that appear on the vehicle dashboard. In the report, federal investigators say Uber's modified, self-driving 2017 Volvo XC90 had its brakes designed for this type of risky situation disabled. However, it first identified her as an "unknown object, as a vehicle, and then as a bicycle".

One outstanding question: Was the backup Uber driver distracted by her cell phone during the final six seconds of Elaine Herzberg's life?

Unfortunately, in this accident, the driver was not paying attention to the road, and was looking down moments before the collision. "The objective of the vehicle operator is to closely monitor and intervene [when needed], and that absolutely includes the emergency system". It hit Herzberg while traveling at 39 miles an hour. In addition, data showed that the operator didn't begin braking until less than a second after the impact.

Peduto said that "a full federal investigation had to be completed, with strong rules for keeping streets safe", before he would agree to the testing on the streets of his city. But the driver told the NTSB that she was actually looking down at a touchscreen that was used to monitor the self-driving auto software.

This report is preliminary and therefore does not contain a formal finding of fact concerning the cause of the crash, but it generally confirms what's been suspected since the event.

12 News will pursue the release of the Uber report. If true, this also speaks to an underlying concern about self-driving cars: If vehicle operators are also checking readouts for additional information, does this lead to distraction and could it increase accidents?

While it's still possible to get a traffic citation for hitting a pedestrian who wasn't in a crosswalk, Herzberg's actions will also be taken into account by prosecutors, as will Herzberg's toxicology results, Medina said.

In a statement emailed to The Car Connection, Uber said it will cooperate with investigators.