Report Suggests Rampant Negligence In Uber Self Driving Car Fatality

from the I'm-sorry-I-can't-do-that,-Dave dept

Earlier this year you might recall that a self-driving Uber in Tempe, Arizona killed a woman who was trying to cross the street with her bike outside of a crosswalk. The driver wasn't paying attention, and the car itself failed to stop for the jaywalking pedestrian. Initial reporting on the subject, most of it based on anonymous Uber sources who spoke to the paywalled news outlet The Information, strongly pushed the idea that the car's sensors worked as intended and detected the woman, but bugs in the system software failed to properly identify the woman as something to avoid:

"The car’s sensors detected the pedestrian, who was crossing the street with a bicycle, but Uber’s software decided it didn’t need to react right away. That’s a result of how the software was tuned. Like other autonomous vehicle systems, Uber’s software has the ability to ignore “false positives,” or objects in its path that wouldn’t actually be a problem for the vehicle, such as a plastic bag floating over a road. In this case, Uber executives believe the company’s system was tuned so that it reacted less to such objects. But the tuning went too far, and the car didn’t react fast enough, one of these people said."

Thanks to that report, a narrative emerged that the vehicle largely worked as designed, and the only real problem was a modest quirk in uncooked programming.

But a new report by Bloomberg this week shatters that understanding. According to NTSB findings seen by Bloomberg, the vehicle in question wasn't even programmed to detect jaywalkers. Like, at all:

"Uber Technologies Inc.’s self-driving test car that struck and killed a pedestrian last year wasn’t programmed to recognize and react to jaywalkers, according to documents released by U.S. safety investigators."

Assuming Bloomberg's read of the 400 page report (only a part of which has been made public) is accurate, that's a far cry from a bug. The NTSB report found that Uber staff had also disabled Volvo auto-detection and breaking software that could have at least slowed the vehicle if not avoided the pedestrian impact altogether. Investigators also noted that despite the fact that Uber was conducting risky trials on public streets, the company had little to no real system in place for dealing with safety issues. Again, not just underwhelming public safety protocols, but none whatsoever:

"The Uber Advanced Technologies Group unit that was testing self-driving cars on public streets in Tempe didn’t have a standalone safety division, a formal safety plan, standard operating procedures or a manager focused on preventing accidents, according to NTSB."

Again, that's not just buggy or "poorly tuned" software, it's total negligence. Despite the fact the driver was distracted, the car was never adequately programmed to detect jaywalkers, some safety features were disabled, and Uber had little to no safety protocols in place, prosecutors have already absolved Uber of criminal liability (though the driver still may face a lawsuit). The NTSB also hasn't formally affixed blame for the crash (yet):

"The documents painted a picture of safety and design lapses with tragic consequences but didn’t assign a cause for the crash. The safety board is scheduled to do that at a Nov. 19 meeting in Washington."

Self driving cars are remarkably safe, and most accidents involve autonomous vehicles getting confused when people actually follow the law (like rear ending a human-driven vehicle that stopped at a red light before turning right). But that's only true when the people designing and conducting trials are competent. If the NTSB report is anything to go by, Uber fell well short, yet got to enjoy a lot of press suggesting the problem was random bad programming luck, not total negligence and incompetence. Later this month we'll get to see if Uber faces anything resembling accountability for its failures.

Filed Under: arizona, autonomous vehicles, jaywalkers, self driving cars, sensors, tempe
Companies: uber

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Nov 2019 @ 8:48am

    Re: Re: Re: "I am old and have driven for a really long time"

    As I made clear to other commenter, my safety is more relient on my defensive driving and keeping my vehicles in top shape than relying on others to do the same. There are of course anomolies to that thinking, but my confidence has to be placed in my skill rather than hope that someone has similar skills. That is true especially about younger drivers who are suddenly controlling a very powerful machine and who love to feel that power at their command. I do not like seeing someone looking down while they are driving, especially if there isn't someone in the driver's seat. Seeing that does not breed confidence in transportation safety of the ability for legislatures to write sensible laws for the highways.

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: I Invented Email
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads


Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.