The fatal collision between an autonomous Volvo XC90 operated by Uber Technologies and 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg in March could have been prevented, had the vehicle’s software not dismissed what its sensors saw.
That’s what two sources briefed on the issue told The Information, but Uber isn’t divulging what led to the Tempe, Arizona collision. What it will admit to, however, is the hiring of a former National Transportation Safety Board chair to examine the safety of its self-driving vehicle program.
Uber suspended testing following the March crash. In the aftermath, a video showing the seconds leading up to the impact revealed a vehicle that didn’t react to the victim crossing its path on a darkened road. The Volvo’s headlights pick up Herzberg an instant before the collision, but it’s the forward-facing radar and 360-degree rooftop LIDAR unit that should have identified the woman as an object to be avoided.
Lidar supplier Velodyne denied any flaw in its product following the fatal crash.
Blame the software, the sources claim. Uber reportedly tuned its software to aggressively ignore what the sensors determined to be “false positives,” thus ensuring a smooth ride with fewer unnecessary course corrections or brake applications. An errant plastic shopping bag counts as a false positive. As far as the car’s software was concerned, Herzberg was just such an object, the sources stated.
Uber declined to comment on these claims. On Monday, the company announced the hiring of a safety expert to oversee its autonomous vehicle program.
“We have initiated a top-to-bottom safety review of our self-driving vehicles program, and we have brought on former NTSB Chair Christopher Hart to advise us on our overall safety culture,” Uber said. “Our review is looking at everything from the safety of our system to our training processes for vehicle operators, and we hope to have more to say soon.”
A preliminary report on the Tempe crash should emerge from the NTSB “in the coming weeks,” a spokesperson told Reuters.