Uber’s self-driving car that killed a woman didn’t know she existed

The US National Transportation Safety Board has released documents relating to its investigation into a fatal accident involving an Uber self-driving vehicle back in March 2018.
A self driving Volvo XC90 outside 737 Harrison, the unmarked headquarters of Otto, an autonomous trucking company acquired by Uber in 2016.
Uber is one of a number of different companies working on developing autonomous vehicles. Photo: Dllu via Wikimedia Commons

For the past 20 months the National Transportation Safety Board has led an independent federal investigation into the crash which killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg on 18 March 2018.

Fatal crashes happen every day, but the one which killed Elaine Herzberg was noteworthy because it involved an Uber self-driving vehicle.

Uber is one of many companies working to make self-driving cars a reality. Earlier this year, Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, which operates the self-driving car project, was valued at $7.3 billion.

There is big money in the field but, as with most cutting-edge technologies, autonomous vehicles have had their fair share of growing pains.

The NTSB’s investigation into last year’s fatal accident has revealed that there were some serious safety flaws in the software used by Uber’s self-driving vehicles at the time.

The accident which killed Elaine Herzberg

Elaine Herzberg was killed while crossing a road with her bike in Tempe, Arizona at around 10pm. According to reports by Futurism, the Uber self-driving vehicle was travelling at 38 miles per hour in a 35 miles per hour zone when it hit her. She was thrown 75 feet upon impact.

The car involved in the accident was a Volvo XC90 – a mid-size crossover SUV which had been equipped for autonomous driving by Uber.

A self driving Volvo XC90 by Uber seen in San Francisco.
An operator was present inside the Uber autonomous vehicle at the time of the accident. Photo: Dllu via Wikimedia Commons

While the vehicle was driving autonomously at the time, it did have a driver present behind the wheel.

Footage from inside the vehicle shows that the driver, 44-year-old Rafaela Vasquez, was distracted at the time of the accident. Data from her phone suggests that she was actually streaming a TV show on Hulu.

While this would be a clear evidence of driver negligence in a normal car crash, Vasquez was technically acting as an ‘operator’ rather than a driver in this instance. Additionally, Elaine Herzberg only becomes visible a split second before impact.

However, Vasquez may still face criminal charges.

The footage of the crash can be seen below, although it may be disturbing for some viewers.

Oversights in Uber’s software

There have actually been a number of crashes involving Uber vehicles driving in autonomous mode – 37 in total between September 2016 and March 2018, when Elaine Herzberg was killed.

Where this specific crash stands out, however, is the fact it was the first to involve a pedestrian.

The NTSB investigation has revealed some serious shortcomings in the software Uber’s autonomous vehicles were equipped with at the time of the crash.

Specifically, the software was not programmed to recognise pedestrians crossing the road anywhere other than at a crosswalk.

As a result, jaywalkers were simply not something the system knew how to react to. In the case of Elaine Herzberg, the car detected her 5.6 seconds before impact but it changed her ‘classification’ multiple times before it hit her.

Uber self driving car prototype testing in San Francisco.
Uber has updated the software in its autonomous vehicles. Photo: Dllu via Wikimedia Commons

From its initial assessment of ‘vehicle’, the car’s software eventually determined that she was a ‘bicycle’. However, it didn’t apply the brakes until just 0.2 seconds before impact.

The software used in Uber’s autonomous vehicles at the time clearly had some serious shortcomings.

Since then, Uber has “adopted critical program improvements to further prioritise safety. We deeply value the thoroughness of the NTSB’s investigation into the crash and look forward to reviewing their recommendations,” according to Sarah Abboud, a company spokesperson.

The full findings of the NTSB investigation will be released following a meeting in Washington D.C. on 19 November.

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