First fatal crash involving self-driving car software error was cause of accident
Police say fatal accident with self-driving Uber vehicle could have been avoided – software was faulty. In addition, the safety driver was watching TV on her smartphone during the accident. Uber does not have to fear criminal consequences.
The cause of the fatal Uber accident in 2018 is now officially clear: The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded in its final report that faulty software was the cause. At the time, pedestrian Elaine Herzberg was pushing her bicycle across a multi-lane street. A Volvo XC90 equipped by ride-hailing company Uber for autonomous driving ran over Herzberg, who succumbed to her injuries at the scene – the software had failed to recognize the pedestrian.
Police stressed that the accident was “entirely preventable” because there was a safety driver behind the wheel of the XC90. But this one was watching TV on her cell phone during the accident. With this, the authorities confirm the suspicions that emerged shortly after the first fatal accident with a fully autonomous vehicle.
No criminal consequences
Uber faces no criminal charges over fatal crash – U.S. prosecutors found no basis on which to charge the ride-hailing company. However, the investigation into the safety driver distracted by her smartphone is ongoing.
The NTSB additionally announced that there have been a total of 37 accidents involving autonomous Uber vehicles between September 2016 and March 2018. In 33 of those accidents, another car was involved.
All about the first fatal accident involving a fully autonomous vehicle
As evaluations of data from the video portal Hulu revealed, Vasquez watched the broadcast for 42 minutes – at the time of the accident at 9:59 p.m., the transmission broke off. In addition, police evaluated the Volvo XC90’s interior video recorded by Uber. This revealed that the driver looked at her cell phone for a total of seven minutes during the last 22 minutes of streaming. It wasn’t until a half-second before the accident that Vasquez lifts her gaze back toward the street, according to the video recording – far too close to react. Now Rafaela Vasquez faces involuntary manslaughter charges.
According to British media reports, 44-year-old Rafaela Vasquez has a prior conviction for armed robbery. In 2001, she and a co-worker robbed the Blockbuster video store where she was employed with a replica pistol to steal the day’s receipts. For this she was sentenced to five years imprisonment, of which she had to serve four years. In court records, Rafaela Vasquez is still listed under her first name at the time, “Rafael”.
Software likely detected only an “insignificant obstacle”
According to U.S. news site The Information, the Uber Volvo’s software may have malfunctioned. Although the sensors detected the pedestrian pushing a bicycle, the software fatally classified the detection as an insignificant obstacle. Such obstacles, known as “false positives,” include plastic bags blowing across the street. When the robot car’s computing system assumes it has a “false positive” in front of it, it continues at an undiminished speed.
According to Uber insiders, the software had been modified shortly before the accident to avoid overly violent braking maneuvers by the Uber Volvos. Finally, Uber was already planning to offer autonomous driving services in the Phoenix metropolitan area in late 2018. The city of Tempe, where the accident occurred, is southwest of Phoenix and merges seamlessly with Arizona’s capital city, making it part of the aforementioned metropolitan area. According to The Information, an Uber executive who wishes to remain anonymous has expressed that the software modification may have turned out too violent.
Uber plans to test again soon
Uber expresses its deep regret over the accident and stresses that programmers have since thoroughly revised the software. As a consultant for improvements, Uber had hired NTSB chief Christopher A. Being able to win hard. The independent National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is charged with investigating the Uber accident.
First report on the accident
In a news video from a local TV station on 20.3. 2018 to see a Volvo XC90 with a dented front end and damaged hood at the scene of the accident. Next to it on the sidewalk was a bicycle with a bent front wheel. According to Reuters, a police officer said 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was attempting to cross Mill Ave from left to right at approximately 10:00 p.m., at a location without a crosswalk. The woman succumbed to her injuries at the hospital. The Uber Volvo did not initiate braking or evasive action. While initial reports of the accident said the car was traveling at 40 miles per hour (64 km/h) instead of the legal 35 miles per hour (56 km/h), the New York Times reported on 24. March that 45 miles per hour (72 km/h) was allowed at the spot. As a result, the autonomous vehicle would have been traveling eight mph slower than allowed.
The Tempe Police Department had reported on 21. March published a video of the accident. The camera systems of the autonomous XC90 filmed the area in front of the vehicle as well as the driver herself. It can be seen how the pedestrian suddenly appears in the cone of light in the middle of the roadway and the car continues to drive without reacting to the dangerous situation. In a first statement of the police it was still said that Herzberg had stepped sideways out of the darkness onto the roadway, which is why an accident would have been difficult to avoid – in the meantime the police report that this quote was taken out of context. Just before the impact, the video stops. The interior camera shows the safety driver looking down more often than not, rather than constantly looking at the roadway.
The video raises questions about why the autonomous Uber vehicle did not initiate an emergency stop. The radar and lidar systems (lidar: light detection and ranging, distance measurement by laser) with which the car is equipped work independently of daylight and could possibly have detected the pedestrian and her bicycle and initiated an emergency stop. Finally, the systems operate at a 360-degree angle around the vehicle, allowing them to dedect movement perpendicular to the autonomous vehicle’s direction of travel (see image below). According to the video, approximately two seconds elapse from the time the pedestrian appears in the beam of light until the crash occurs. Specialists of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Tempe Police Department’s Vehicle Related Crimes Division are currently evaluating the video.
The camera images do not allow any conclusions to be drawn about what the driver was able to see, since cameras are technically hardly capable of mimicking a person’s vision in the dark on a one-to-one basis. The camera used by Uber appears to have a comparatively low dynamic range – in other words, it has trouble mapping differences in brightness. Youtube user Brian Kaufman drove down Mill Ave in Tempe at night and filmed his ride with a better camera. This is Kaufman’s way of proving how bad the Uber camera was. On his video (below), the environment is much more visible – the accident site is reached at 34 seconds.
Uber to pay damages to family of crash victim
Uber expressed its dismay in a tweet and condoled with the woman’s relatives. The ride-hailing company assured authorities of its full cooperation. Uber fleet of autonomous vehicles still not deployed. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sent an investigative team to the scene of the accident and contacted Volvo, the automaker owned by China’s Geely Group.
On 29. March, Uber reached an agreement with the family of the pedestrian who died in the accident to pay damages of an unknown amount. Cristina Perez Hesano, attorney for the Herzberg family, advised that Elaine Herzberg’s husband and daughter would not comment on the settlement. Uber itself also declined to comment on the case. By settling quickly with the Herzberg family, Uber avoided a potentially lengthy damages trial in court.
Arizona revoked Uber license, California did not renew permits, Nvidia, Toyota and Boston halted testing
Meanwhile, the governor of Arizona had completely halted Uber testing and revoked the ride-hailing company’s license over safety concerns. The move was an about-face in autonomous vehicle testing in the U.S. state, which is popular for testing autonomous driving cars because of its straight roads and good weather. Arizona’s government had until then always stressed it did not want to regulate testing of robotic vehicles. Republican Governor Doug Ducey had offered Uber test space shortly before, with no further stipulations. Also allowed vehicles to hit the roads without control personnel. After the accident, Ducey wrote to new Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi that he found the accident video “disturbing and concerning” and that the film raised many questions.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles (California DMV) also extended the settlement, which expired on 31. March 2018 expired test license for autonomous driving Uber vehicles did not. In California, Uber faces accusations from cyclists, among others, that its autonomous Volvos were performing unsafe turning maneuvers. If Uber wants to continue testing robotic vehicles in the southwestern U.S. state, the ride-hailing service provider would have to apply for a new license, making reference to the fatal accident in Arizona, the California DMV said.
Chipmaker Nvidia, based in Santa Clara, California, also halted all its tests of robotic cars on public roads to mark the accident. Nvidia test vehicles were on the road in the U.S., Japan and Germany, among other countries. The chipmaker is among the leading developers of hardware and software in so-called artificial intelligence, which is considered by some experts to be an essential prerequisite for autonomous driving. Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang says his company’s technology was not installed in the accident Volvo. After the test halt was announced, Nvidia’s stock temporarily plunged more than eight percent on the stock market.
Toyota announced in the U.S. it was pausing tests of autonomous vehicles on public roads. Japanese company assumes its test drivers are emotionally affected by fatal Uber accident.
Boston, capital of the U.S. state of Massachusetts, had halted all autonomous vehicle testing by NuTonomy (software provider for robotic cars) and Optimus Ride (provider of autonomous slow-moving light electric vehicles).
Even before that, accidents and traffic violations with Uber cars
The accident was a major setback for efforts by Uber and other companies to bring autonomous driving cars to production readiness. As early as 16. March 2018, Google parent Alphabet, Waymo and Uber failed with an initiative in the U.S. Congress for legislation that would greatly simplify testing and operation of self-driving cars on public roads.
Uber’s trials of self-driving cars were ill-fated from the start: on 14. December 2016, an Uber Volvo ran a red light in San Francisco. Uber did not have permission for driving tests there. The city subsequently canceled the operating permits of all autonomous driving Uber cars. As a result, Uber moved its test fleet to Arizona. In March 2017, in Tempe, where the fatal accident now occurred, another Uber XC90 was in a serious accident after it was struck in the right of way by another road user. The Volvo was on its side after the accident. In the meantime, however, Uber also applied for and received a test license in its hometown of San Francisco.
Problems likely known for some time
According to the New York Times, Uber has had problems with its autonomous test fleet in Arizona for quite some time. Analysis of more than 100 pages of internal documents and testimony from two Uber employees, who wish to remain anonymous, reveal that the test vehicles had particular difficulty in areas with construction sites and next to semi-trucks. In addition, Uber drivers apparently had to manually intervene in autonomous mode far more often than safety drivers from rival companies exploring autonomous driving. For example, the former Google subsidiary Waymo reports that in its 2017 test drives, after an average of 5.600 miles (9.012 kilometers) required driver intervention, while Uber struggled to make 13 miles (21 kilometers) without intervention in March.
In addition, Uber apparently found itself under pressure, with Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi planning to travel to Arizona in April. According to internal documents, his development bosses there wanted to present him with a flawless autonomous ride. The project was called “Milestone 1: Trust” – and it’s now canceled. According to the New York Times, the accident is a major setback for Uber’s attempt to burnish its corporate image following the departure of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who resigned in June 2017.
Back in February 2018, Uber agreed with its competitor Waymo on an out-of-court settlement payment of $245 million, currently the equivalent of about 197 million euros (U.S. Federal District Court of San Francisco order, case number 3:2017cv00939). Waymo had sued Uber in February 2017 for theft of corporate secrets, patent infringement as well as unfair competition. Finally, in the summer of 2016, Uber had bought Otto, a company specializing in autonomous trucks, for $680 million (the equivalent of about 548 million euros). One of the two Otto founders is former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski, who worked at Waymo before the Uber acquisition and is said to have come into possession of valuable data that way. Waymo says the court agreement is confidential – as of now, the two companies each plan to develop their own technology. Both companies bear their own legal costs.
Passenger liability waiver
As early as September 2016, self-driving Uber cars were making headlines. At the time, the Guardian reported on a police officer who wanted to use an autonomous driving Uber car. He had signed a document in which Uber stated that the technology was still in development and that riding in an autonomous car could lead to serious injury, death and loss of property.
In August 2016, ex-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick had told Bloomberg Businessweek that no software existed yet that drove as safely as a human being. In the autonomous Uber cars, there is always a driver behind the wheel.
At the time, Uber was testing autonomous driving in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a fleet of autonomously driving Ford Fusion cars. The ride in the test cars was free of charge. Uber wanted to use them to test passenger reactions. The test took place in a 31-square-kilometer area in downtown Pittsburgh that is mapped to the nearest centimeter.
Uber and Volvo have been cooperating since 2016
In August 2016, Volvo and Uber had announced the cooperation, in which both companies invested 300 million US dollars. The two companies plan to jointly develop autonomous driving cars. The technology for the autonomous Uber Volvo comes from the Swedish automaker’s scalable product architecture, on which the XC90 and S90 are also based. Both companies want to use them to develop and research techniques for autonomous driving. Volvo plans to offer the first autonomous driving car starting in 2021.
Fatal accident with Tesla was not with autonomous driving car
In May 2016, the “driver” of a Tesla Model S was killed in Florida after relying on his electric car’s assistance system, which Tesla effusively dubbed “Auto Pilot”. In its investigation report, the U.S. NTSB assigned full blame to the driver a year later: he had been traveling too fast and did not have his hands on the steering wheel. The autopilot had warned him several times.