Software behind self-driving Uber crash didn't recognize jaywalkers

Galtero Lara
Noviembre 8, 2019

An Uber self-driving test vehicle that struck and killed an Arizona woman in 2018 had software flaws, according to a U.S. agency's report which also reveals the company's autonomous test vehicles were involved in multiple crashes in the 18 months prior to the incident.

In a preliminary report, the NTSB had already determined that the car's software spotted the 49-year-old woman almost six seconds before the vehicle hit her, as she walked across the street at night with her bicycle in Tempe, a suburb of Phoenix. The documents paint 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 November 19 meeting in Washington. "In the wake of this tragedy, the team at Uber ATG has adopted critical program improvements to further prioritize safety".

The report also alleges that Uber's self-driving vehicles may have failed to identify roadway hazards in two other cases. "I think they were playing fast and loose with people's lives, and Elaine Hertzberg has paid the price".

"Uber didn't tell its vehicle to look for pedestrians outside of crosswalks", Marshall wrote, citing the following language from NTSB documents: "The system design did not include a consideration for jaywalking pedestrians".

In this case, while a human driver would intuitively know, when faced with the scenario, that visually that a pedestrian was crossing outside of a designated crosswalk, the machine doesn't know that, unless it's programmed to - and in this case, it apparently wasn't.

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The independent US Government agency may use the findings from the first fatal self-driving auto accident to make recommendations that could have an impact on how the entire industry addresses self-driving software issues or to regulators about how to oversee the industry. But it now appears that the NTSB has a different opinion.

Worse still, the NTSB claims that Uber ignored safety issues. In Pennsylvania Uber resumed testing again in December after a revised software and significant new restrictions and safeguards were put in place. According to Bloomberg, Uber cut back to one instead of two safety drivers five months before Herzberg's death. In July, police in Tempe closed a street to conduct a lighting test as it investigated whether the Uber safety driver who was behind the wheel and supposed to respond in the event of an emergency should face criminal charges. Other companies, such as GM's Cruise affiliate, use two. The safety board further also revealed that the company's autonomous test vehicles in the past 18-months were involved in approximately 37 crashes. However, prior to the 2018 crash, Uber would mechanically disable Volvo's collision avoidance system when Uber's possess technologies was lively.

But another major problem was software's inability to identify a person in the car's sights, and its resulting failure to predict how that person would move into the vehicle's path. Uber's system perceived Herzberg as a vehicle, a bicycle and an "other" object in the seconds before collision - but not a human being.

The safety driver involved in the accident told investigators that "sometimes the vehicle would swerve towards a bicycle".

Uber has since discontinued that function as part of its software update.

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