NTSB: Self-Driving Uber SUV Had Safety Features Turned Off in Fatal Crash

© Provided by Consumer Reports

By Jeff Plungis, CR Consumer Reports

The advanced safety systems on Uber’s self-driving SUV identified that there was an object in the road in front of it several seconds before the vehicle hit and killed a pedestrian in March, a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report on the Arizona crash found.

And, the report noted, Volvo’s built-in advanced safety systems were turned off while the vehicle was in self-driving mode.

The backup driver became aware of the pedestrian less than a second before the crash, and the system hadn’t alerted her, the report said. The NTSB said that the software onboard the self-driving Volvo SUV and the driver had several chances to avoid hitting and killing 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg.

There were 6 seconds from the time the victim was detected until the time of the crash, according to the NTSB report issued Thursday. That’s a relatively long time in terms of crash avoidance, but neither the car’s software nor its human test driver reacted in time to avoid the collision.

Uber’s reliance on human test drivers to retake control of a vehicle moving at high speed in an emergency situation raises serious questions about the safety of its test vehicles, says Jake Fisher, director of auto testing at Consumer Reports.

“This death was preventable,” Fisher says. “It's an unrealistic expectation that anyone would continue to stay completely engaged with the driving environment behind the wheel of a self-driving car.”

In an emailed response to Consumer Reports, Uber said it has brought in former NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart as an adviser on safety. The company said it’s cooperating with the NTSB on the Arizona crash investigation and is working to make safety improvements and secure the proper permits to resume testing. It didn’t have a specific comment on the NTSB report.

“We’re committed to self-driving technology, and we look forward to returning to public roads in the near future,” the company said. “In the meantime, we remain focused on our top-to-bottom safety review.”

Among the most surprising findings in the NTSB report was the revelation that the numerous built-in crash-avoidance features in the modified Volvo XC90 SUV were turned off when in self-driving mode. Those systems included automatic emergency braking, a collision-avoidance function, and a driver-alertness monitor.

Uber told the NTSB that these features were disabled in self-driving mode to reduce the potential for “erratic vehicle behavior.” Uber’s testing regime relied on the human backup driver to intervene when necessary. At the same time, the system isn’t designed to alert the operator, according to the NTSB report.

The Uber software first identified Herzberg as an unknown object about 6 seconds before the crash. The system then classified Herzberg as a vehicle, and finally as a bicycle, the NTSB said. At 1.3 seconds before impact, the self-driving system determined that emergency braking was needed to mitigate a collision. The vehicle operator grabbed the steering wheel less than a second before impact, the report said, and she applied the brakes less than a second after the impact. The Uber vehicle was traveling at 43 mph.

“According to Uber, emergency braking maneuvers are not enabled while the the vehicle is under computer control to reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior,” the NTSB said. “The vehicle operator is relied on to intervene and take action.”

The test driver told the NTSB she had been monitoring the company’s self-driving interface in the moments leading up to the crash. Her business and personal phones were in the car, but she didn’t use either until after the crash, the driver told the NTSB.

Safety advocates say the report shows that Uber’s self-driving test cars were not ready for the testing they were attempting. The Uber crash bolsters the case for a stronger regulatory approach, says William Wallace, senior policy analyst for Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports. Uber, Waymo, Tesla, and other companies are lobbying the government for weaker standards, putting profit over safety, he says.

“This report makes it clear that a self-driving car was tested on public roads when it wasn’t safe enough to be there, and it killed a pedestrian. That’s the bottom line,” Wallace says. “Everyone on our roads shares the responsibility for safety, and Uber blatantly neglected to do its part. Uber’s recklessness underscores the danger of rushing self-driving cars onto roads.”

The report confirmed some of the details that had previously been reported about the crash, some of which show Herzberg was taking big risks. She crossed a high-speed roadway from a brick median and ignored signs warning pedestrians to use a crosswalk. The bicycle she was pushing didn’t have side reflectors, and she was wearing dark clothing. Herzberg’s post-crash toxicology report indicated the presence of methamphetamine and marijuana in her body.

The Uber SUV was equipped with cameras, radar, lidar, navigation sensors, and the computing power needed to process the sensor information, the NTSB said. All these systems were “operating normally at the time of the crash,” the safety board said. But none of them were set up to alert the SUV’s driver.

“Without any driver support such as warnings or driver monitoring, a crash like this was inevitable,” Fisher says.
Uber May Revive Testing, but Not in Arizona

Uber shut down its automated-vehicle testing soon after the March crash. On Wednesday, the company announced in an internal memo to employees that it was pulling its testing program out of Arizona, refocusing its efforts near engineering centers in San Francisco and Pittsburgh. The news was first reported by the website Ars Technica.

“To be clear, we are not shutting down our self-driving program,” Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber’s Advanced Technology Group, said in the memo. “When we get back on the road, we intend to drive in a much more limited way to test specific use cases.”

Late Wednesday, Pittsburgh’s mayor, William Peduto, issued a set of conditions for Uber to meet before the city would allow testing there again, including a strict 25-mph speed limit for test cars to make collisions with pedestrians more survivable. Pittsburgh also wants Uber’s app to alert human drivers when they’re exceeding speed limits.

“Uber did not tell me of today’s announcements,” Peduto said in a public statement. “I was forced to learn about it through social media reports. This is not the way to rebuild a constructive working relationship with local government, especially when facing a public safety matter.”

The NTSB report is preliminary, and the safety board still hasn’t determined an official probable cause of the crash. That won’t happen until the investigation is complete and any findings and recommendations are approved by the five-member board. The process usually takes about a year from the time of the incident.

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