The National Road Safety Committee (NTSB) released its preliminary report on the fatal crash of a self-propelled Uber vehicle last March in Tempe, Arizona. According to the investigators, the vehicle decided that it had to brake for 1.3 seconds before a pedestrian was hit, but Uber had previously disabled the Volvo's automatic emergency braking system to prevent unpredictable driving.
The four-page report provides a detailed account of what happened that night on March 18, when a Uber test vehicle met and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg. In some ways, the document is more remarkable for what it does not say than what it does. The NTSB provides no analysis and no blame for Herzberg's death. Much of the report has already been reported, including the fact that Uber had disabled the factory settings of the Volvo XC90 for emergency braking and other driver assistance functions. And it is not mentioned that the software of the vehicle was set so that Herzberg was registered as "false positive", as recently reported by The Information . On the contrary, the agency said that Uber's system seems to work well.
The agency says it will continue working with Uber, Volvo and the Arizona Department of Transportation to prepare the final report due in 2019. The Tempe Police Department has completed its own investigation this week and has referenced its findings to the Maricopa County lawyer. A spokesman for Uber declined to comment on the details of the report.
" Over the past two months, we have worked closely with the NTSB," said the Uber spokesman. "As the investigation continues, we have launched our own safety review of our self-driving vehicle program, and we also got former NTSB chairman Christopher Hart to discuss our overall safety culture, and we look forward to hearing more about the changes in the coming weeks. "
So what went wrong? The NTSB deadline timeline is as follows:
- At 21:14, Uber security driver Rafaela Vasquez leaves the garage to start an established test run.
- Immediately before the crash she is on her second loop, 43 mph north on Mill Avenue. At that moment, the car was in autonomous mode for the previous 19 minutes.
- At 9:58 am, Herzberg begins to drive east on Mill Avenue.
- The vehicle's radar and LIDAR sensors detect an object on the road about six seconds before the impact.
- When approaching their paths, the vehicle's self-propelled software classifies Herzberg first as an unknown object, then as a vehicle and finally as a bicycle with different expectations of the future route.
- 1.3 seconds before the impact, the vehicle computer decides that an emergency braking maneuver is required. But Uber has disabled Volvo's AEB system "to reduce the potential for unpredictable vehicle behavior". The system was not designed to alert the driver that braking is required.
- Vasquez attacks "less than a second" before the impact by grabbing the steering wheel. The car beats Herzberg at a speed of 39mph. Vasquez hits the brakes less than a second after the impact.
While we still do not know exactly why Uber's vehicle could not brake, the NTSB quotes this as the ruling company's predominant explanation for what went wrong:
According to Uber Die Entwicklung Self-propelled system relies on an attentive operator to intervene if the system does not operate properly during the test. In addition, the operator is responsible for monitoring diagnostic messages that appear at an interface in the center stack of the vehicle dashboard and mark events of interest for a subsequent review.
Vasquez was seen in a video released by the Tempe Police Department seconds before the impact. Vasquez told the investigators that she had "monitored the self-propelled system interface" displayed on an iPad mounted on the center console of the vehicle. She said both her personal and her business phone were in the car, but that was not working until after the crash.
The report outlines Herzberg's actions in the moments before the crash in a rather negative light. The investigators noticed that she crossed the street in front of the pedestrian crossing, wearing dark clothes and, according to a post-crash toxicology report, had methamphetamine and marijuana in her system. The NTSB also notes that the median on Mill Avenue, where Herzberg crossed the street, was not illuminated by lights and warned pedestrians with signs that should not cross it.
But others noted that the street scene in which Herzberg was hit gives pedestrians a mixed message. It has an inviting, X-shaped paved Median trail, although it is located in the middle of a busy street about 360 feet from the nearest zebra crossing. A homeless camp is located a few meters behind the median, and locals have noticed that pedestrians often cross the street at this location.
Immediately after the crash in March, Uber interrupted its autonomous vehicle testing in North America. Subsequently, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, who had been extremely friendly to Uber, revoked the Ride-Hailing Company's approval to test vehicles in the state. And yesterday, Uber said it covered its test program in Arizona and fired nearly 300 security drivers. His self-driving program would be more limited and "limited" in the coming months, the company said.
Uber wants to continue its self-drive test later this year, and in a sense, today's report was the first hurdle the company had to overcome before putting its cars back on the road. In a recent interview with The Verge Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said he had ordered an internal review of the company's self-drive program and would wait for these results before giving the go-ahead for a reboot.
"The focus is on, just do the right thing, so that I can be satisfied, the teams at [Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group] can be satisfied that, hopefully, that will never happen again," he said. "You can not guarantee anything in life."