In Mid-March, a pedestrian, 49-year-old Elain Herzberg was killed in Tempe, Arizona when a self-driving Uber car with a safety driver hit her as she was crossing the street with her bicycle. This is the first fatality associated with a self-driving car and experts are discussing how, if at all, this accident will affect the rest of the industry.
According to Tempe police, the driver was behind the wheel of a Volvo XC90 SUV, as Herzberg was walking her bicycle across the street. A video shows she had crossed at least one open lane of the road before being hit. At the time of the collision, the SUV was in autonomous mode.
Experts of the video thought that Uber’s self-driving sensors should have detected Herzberg as she walked across the open road at 10 p.m., despite it being dark outside.
A University of South Carolina law professor Bryant Walker Smith said that the Uber’s light detection and ranging and radar (lidar) “absolutely should have detected her and classified her as something other than a stationary object…and [it] strongly suggests a failure by Uber’s automated driving system and a lack of due care by Uber’s driver, as well as by the victim.”
The low-definition video runs for about 4 seconds before ending, just as Herzberg is about to be hit by the front, right bumper. She is seen taking several steps and appears to be moving at a normal walking pace outside of the crosswalk. She does not look up at the on-oncoming vehicle. The car didn’t slow or swerve to avoid the impact, according to the police, even though the video shows the headlights were visible on her for at least 2 seconds before impact.
The video also shows the driver. Out of approximately 13 second of the video, the driver is looking down and away from the road for about 10 seconds. He looks up about a second before the end of the recording and is heard to gasp upon seeing the collision that was about to occur.
Mike Ramsey, an analyst at Gartner, Inc., a company researching self-driving technology said, “Uber has to explain what happened. There are only two possibilities: the sensors failed to detect her, or the decision-making software decided that this was not something to stop for.” He said he was mystified that the vehicle didn’t react, given that the lidar systems like the one used on Uber’s SUV have a detection range of at least 109 yards and work better at night than in the day.
Ramsey excuses the driver somewhat saying, “Even if the safety driver had been totally paying attention, there’s an awkwardness with the machine if you’re anticipating the machine is going to be able to handle a situation. You don’t know when you should jump in.”
Uber was ordered to suspend testing on Arizona roads by Governor Doug Ducey, even though it had suspended all testing of its self-driving vehicles on public roadways in the greater Phoenix area, San Francisco, Toronto and Pittsburgh right after the accident. In addition, the California Department of Motor Vehicles told Uber that they have lost their testing privileges there as well. If Uber wants to return, it will need a new permit and will have to first address the investigation findings of the Arizona crash.
How will this accident affect the future of the autonomous car industry?
While the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) continues its investigation into how the software and sensors worked and what it recorded, the obvious question this accident raised is just how ready these vehicles are to be driving on roads in our communities, and what affect it will have on the future of the autonomous car industry.
For self-driving cars, dealing with pedestrians and bicyclists is a challenging task. The self-driving industry has found quicker success with highway driving, which is a less complicated environment.
Subbarao Kambhampati, a professor at Arizona State University specializing in Artificial Intelligence, says the Uber accident raises questions about the ability of safety drivers to monitor systems effectively, especially after long hours of testing. Other research has shown the challenge of establishing communications between self-driving systems and pedestrians.
The accident comes amid what seemed like rapid progress on self-driving technology and a push to loosen legal restrictions. Waymo, the self-driving arm of Google, announced late last year that it was removing the backup driver out of its vehicles and that it intends to launch a driverless taxi service in Phoenix later this year. Just before this most recent accident, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey updated an executive order to allow self-driving cars to drive on state roads without a test driver behind the wheel.
Days before the accident, Waymo, Uber, and others had urged Congress to pass legislation that would pave the way for self-driving cars in the U.S. The accident could slow the passage of that bill.
All of these companies prefer Arizona for self-driving car development. Arizona has little inclement weather. This makes it more appealing for self-driving cars, which can struggle in rain or during snowfall.
Uber has previously grounded its vehicles while investigating a crash. In 2016, Uber briefly removed its vehicles from the roads, after an Uber self-driving vehicle in Tempe landed on its side. Technology was deemed at fault in Florida in May 2016 involving a Tesla Model S. The car was in autopilot mode when it failed to see a truck across the road ahead. The Tesla’s driver was killed.
Even after such incidents, the public does not seem to be turning against the technology. “I am not really sure this is going to lead to a public worry or backlash,” says Kambhampati. “Because honestly, I thought there would be more of a backlash after the Tesla accident.” Many believe autonomous vehicles are here to stay.
Group Matrix Blog – April 3, 2018 – by Sharon Bowles