Thanks to a new report by a federal investigative agency, more facts have come out about the incident in which a pedestrian was killed by a “self-driving” Uber car this past March. The report, by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said the Uber vehicle’s self-driving mode did in fact “see” the pedestrian, but Uber had disabled the car’s automatic emergency brake, so the vehicle did not try to stop before striking Elaine Herzberg.
The report says the computer labeled the woman as an “unknown object” before pegging her as a “vehicle” then a “bicycle.” Herzberg had been pushing her bike across the road at the time. About a second before the impact, the computer noted the emergency brake needed to be applied, but was unable to do so, because that aspect of the system had been disabled.
According to the report, the vehicle “recognized” the woman about six seconds before the impact, but had no way to alert the “driver” of the car to apply the manual brake. These findings seem to point the finger of blame directly at Uber for the fatal crash. Now, many industry experts are weighing in, and what they have to say is making it look worse and worse for Uber, a company still struggling to move past last year’s PR issues.
Speaking to CNN, Bryan Reimer, research scientist at MIT and associate director of the New England University Transportation Center, said the point of the “self-driving” option was to keep the driver from having to do the driving. In this, it appears, Uber missed the mark: “The most shocking portion of the report is emergency braking maneuvers were not enabled… Is the driver expected to look at the outside world continually? It’s impossible when you’re providing tasks that interfere with that.”
That statement may appear nonsensical at first. Of course, drivers are supposed to keep an eye on the road… even when testing this tech. At least, that’s what people might assume.
As it turns out, Uber requires human “operators” in “self-driving” cars to pay attention to diagnostic messages on the vehicle dashboard, so they’re not always paying attention to the road. That’s supposed to be the car’s job… And, in this case, the vehicle did see the “object” that turned out to be a human being. It just couldn’t stop, because that function had been turned off. So far, Uber has yet to respond to this latest report.