Autonomous Uber ignored pedestrian it fatally hit, report says

Mae Love
May 8, 2018

But the race to be first in having an available and legal self-driving auto for consumers is picking up regardless of any woes that Uber (and others) may be specifically having.

The crash was likely the result of a problem with software that decides "how the auto should react to objects it detects", The Information reported Monday, citing two unidentified people who were briefed on the situation. Sources told The Information that this was caused by software faultily set up to ignore objects on the road.

Although the car's sensors reportedly detected the pedestrian, Uber's software determined that it didn't need to immediately react because of how it was tuned.

Essentially, the programming detects objects around the vehicle and auto operators fine-tune the sensitivity to make that that it only reacts to true threats.

As a result, the system, which normally flags ― then dismisses ― things like plastic bags and other minor obstacles, decided not to take evasive measures when it encountered 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, who was walking her bike across a dark section of road in Tempe. Uber settled with the victim's family later that month.

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The March accident marked the first pedestrian fatality involving an autonomous vehicle and put the technology under intense scrutiny. In an emailed statement, Uber added that it recently hired former NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart to review its safety procedures.

"Our review is looking at everything from the safety of our system to our training processes for vehicle operators", the spokeswoman said.

Uber, which suspended testing of autonomous vehicles after the accident, on Monday said it was looking at its self-driving programme and said it retained Christopher Hart, a former chairman of the NTSB, to advise it on safety.

Bryant Walker Smith, a self-driving auto expert and law professor at the University of SC, said in an email that the report by The Information raised the question of whether Uber's "software might have detected something but misclassified as something other than a human (which could include determining that the probability of that something being a human was low)". Uber declined to say whether the tuned-down software was responsible for the crash.

Uber would not comment on the report, saying that it is cooperating with the ongoing National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) probe into the accident.

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