Failure of Automated Driving Technology Blamed for First Pedestrian Fatality

Experts who watched the videos taken by onboard cameras equipped in the Volvo SUV that hit Elaine Herzberg determined that Uber's automated driving system failed to perform adequately. The crash points to a need for regulations.
March 25, 2018, 5am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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[Updated 3/27/2018] Contrary to the Tempe police chief's conclusion that the crash was likely "unavoidable" based on her observation of the two videos of the Uber crash that killed Elaine Herzberg, a 49-year-old woman who was walking her bike across Mill Avenue (see the graphic of crash scene in The New York Times) in Tempe, Az. late Sunday night, several experts believe the crash would not have occurred had the Volvo's technology been working the way it was designed.

"The video clearly shows a complete failure of the system to recognize an obviously seen person who is visible for quite some distance in the frame,” said Michael Ramsey, research director with Gartner and an expert on self-driving cars, reports Carolyn Said, who writes on autonomous vehicles for the San Francisco Chronicle. “Uber has some serious explaining to do about why this person wasn’t seen and why the system didn’t engage.”

The self-driving car was equipped with sensors, including video cameras, radar and lidar, a laser form of radar. Although the technology is still under development, robot cars are intended to be superior to human drivers because they have a 360-degree view of their surroundings and don’t get distracted.

“There is no question the laser should have seen her,” said Brad Templeton, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was an early consultant on Google’s self-driving project. “I know the technology is better than that, so I do feel that it must be Uber’s failure.” 

It gets worse. Uber may have intentionally disabled crash avoidance technology that comes equipped in the Volvo.

Ramsey and Templeton both said that the automatic braking and forward-collision warning that are stock features on high-end car [sic] such as the Volvo XC90 that Uber uses in its tests should have detected the pedestrian and at least slowed the car. 

“Probably, that Volvo had it, but it was turned off,” Templeton said.

Even if the technology had performed as it was intended, some experts don't believe it's ready to the type of real-world testing underway in Arizona, whose Republican governor, Doug Ducey, has targeted the autonomous vehicle industry by boasting of a low-regulatory environment.

"BMW’s top engineer today [March 22] suggested Uber’s fatal Arizona crash was 'inevitable' and insisted the Volvo XC90 never had enough technology to drive itself safely," reports Michael Taylor for Forbes.

Dr. Klaus Fröhlich, the BMW Group board of management's director of development, insisted no automaker or tech company had current sensor and computer systems advanced enough for production-ready Level 4 or Level 5 self-driving.

“At the moment, with the quality and ability of the sensors and the computer processing speed and performance, there is no possibility to have highly autonomous cars without accidents,” Dr Fröhlich insisted.

Fröhlich called Herzberg's death "very regrettable." Joan Claybrook, who headed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for President Jimmy Carter and is now with Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, went further. “The public are the guinea pigs for these early vehicles," she told The Washington Post on March 20. "These cars are being rushed onto the public highways way before they’re ready."

Claybrook has long been critical of the lack of federal regulations on autonomous vehicles, reported Katie Burke for Automotive News on Jan. 16. 

"We take vision tests when we get our license; self-driving cars won't have to do this," Claybrook said. "There's no requirement to identify vehicles, there's no data collection requirement."

Claybrook warned that without more resources, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which still lacks an administrator, "won't be able to handle the new responsibilities of monitoring the safety of autonomous vehicles," added Burke

Need for more regulations – on the state level

Forbes' contributor Sam Abuelsamid also analyzed the Volvo's two videos of last Sunday's crash and came to the same conclusion by the two experts cited in the Chronicle.

"The Volvo XC90s that Uber is using for development are equipped with cameras, radar and lidar sensors," writes Abuelsamid.

The radar and lidar are capable of “seeing” their surroundings in complete darkness and should have easily detected Herzberg’s presence in the roadway anywhere from 150 feet to 300 feet away, or more, depending on the types of sensors that Uber is using.

While the companies developing automated driving systems have made it clear that they think it’s too soon for regulation, they are just plain wrong. We don’t need regulations that will stifle innovation. However, we need some minimum performance standards for automated driving.

Taylor of Forbes reminds readers how Gov. Dulcy (R-Az.) was critical of California for merely requiring that self-driving vehicles be permitted, resulting in Uber's decision to leave San Francisco in December 2016 for Arizona

In a tweet that did not age well, Arizona’s Governor Doug Ducey tweeted that “this is what OVER-regulation looks like!” in reaction to the California decision before inviting Uber’s autonomous fleet to test on his state’s roads.

The March 20 crash is the first that resulted in the death of a pedestrian caused by an autonomous vehicle. The first fatality involving a self-driving car occurred May 7, 2016, resulting in the death of Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio who was operating his Model S Tesla on Autopilot.

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Published on Wednesday, March 21, 2018 in San Francisco Chronicle
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