In March, a woman crossing the street on a bicycle in Tempe, Arizona was struck by an Uber that was testing its autonomous driving mode. The victim later died from her injuries. Since then, Uber has been studying what went wrong and it has reportedly concluded that the hardware was working properly, but the software's sensitivity wasn't set correctly.
According to two sources "briefed about the matter", The Information reports that Uber's internal investigation found that the cameras, LIDAR and radar on the self-driving test vehicle all did their jobs correctly. Unfortunately, the system that determines which objects around the car can be safely ignored had reportedly been tuned in a way that caused it to ignore a passing pedestrian.
A backup driver was present in the car at the time. Immediately following the crash, much attention was paid to dashcam footage showing the driver wasn't paying attention to the road. There's no way to say if the human driver would have been able to react in time, even if they had been paying attention.
The Information seems to imply that it was Uber's rush to show results that was to blame for the software settings. From the report:
There's a reason Uber would tune its system to be less cautious about objects around the car: It is trying to develop a self-driving car that is comfortable to ride in. By contrast, people who have recently ridden in Waymo and General Motors' Cruise vehicles say the ride can be jerky, with sudden pumping of the brakes even though there's no threat in sight. That's often the result of vehicles reacting to false positives, when the sensor systems think they see moving objects that aren't really there, or to objects that probably aren't going to be a problem but are treated as such. Uber's perspective has been that a self-driving car prototype that constantly slams the brakes and comes to hard stops is also dangerous.
Rival Waymo debuted its first fully autonomous cars without the need for a safety driver last November, and has been gearing up to test a commercial offering in the suburbs around Phoenix. Internally, Uber has reportedly been trying to meet the same goal by the end of the year.
In a recent profile, Uber's new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said that he had considered shuttering the self-driving program when he first came aboard, but his colleagues quickly showed him why it was essential to the company's progress toward profitability.
We asked Uber for comment on the story and were sent the following statement:
We're actively cooperating with the [US National Transportation Safety Board] in their investigation. Out of respect for that process and the trust we've built with NTSB, we can't comment on the specifics of the incident. In the meantime, 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. 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.
For any specifics relating to the crash, we were directed to contact the NTSB.
Given Uber's relentless dedication to cutting corners and driving growth in any way possible, it's easy to assume this is just another case of Uber being Uber. At the same time, the accident caused Arizona to suspend Uber from conducting any further self-driving car tests in the state, and the company proceeded to shut down tests in all cities.
It isn't at all clear if Uber was taking unnecessary risks to hit its internal goals, but it's certainly paying a huge price right now.