Uber
Experts: Self-Driving Technology Apparently Failed in Arizona Death
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March 24, 2018, 04:31 PM
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The initial sales pitch behind self-driving cars was that they would be safer than human-driven vehicles — and indeed, more than 35,000 died in the US from automotive crashes in 2015, so there is enormous room for improvement.

The technology promised enhanced awareness powered by an array of sensors tracking the roadway environment. An Uber company diagram boasts of 360-degree radar coverage and seven cameras:

But the video published of the recent death in Tempe, Arizona, by an autonomous Uber car brings troubling questions, in particular, were the object-detecting sensors working at all? There seems to be no braking reaction to a human directly ahead in the road. The headlights don’t appear pointed far enough ahead for night driving, and is the lidar (Light Direction and Ranging) somehow dependent on the headlights?

The Wall Street Journal reported that around 15 percent of traffic deaths in 2017 were of pedestrians, around 6,000. So have pedestrians been overlooked by the tech designers? I was surprised at how many reporters said the victim was not in a crosswalk — as if people don’t wander into the middle of the street for a variety of reasons. The robo-cars should be able to detect and avoid irregular street crossers.

Hopefully there will be a slowdown of the rush to self-driving cars, particularly of Uber, which had a spotty record even before the Arizona crash. The company was ejected from California in 2016 after a series of mishaps, like driving into San Francisco bike lanes.

Keep in mind that more than three million Americans are employed as drivers, so any delay will protect US jobs, at least for a little while.

A Los Angeles Times article had opinions from tech experts about the crash:

Experts say video of Uber’s self-driving car killing a pedestrian suggests its technology may have failed, Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2018

Police late Wednesday released a video that shows an Uber robot car running straight into a woman who was walking her bicycle across a highway in Tempe, Ariz. The woman was taken to a hospital, where she died Sunday night.

The video, shot from the car, is sure to raise debate over who’s to blame for the accident.

In the video, the victim, Elaine Herzberg, 49, appears to be illegally jaywalking from a median strip across two lanes of traffic on a dark road. But she was more than halfway across the street when the car — traveling about 40 mph, according to police — hit her. The car did not appear to brake or take any other evasive action.

Meantime, the Uber employee who’s sitting behind the wheel of the self-driving test car is seen gazing at his lap before looking up in shock around the time of impact.

Experts say any of several pieces of the driverless system may have failed, from lidar and radar “eyes,” to the logic system that’s supposed to identify road objects, to the communications channels that are supposed to apply the brakes, or the car’s automatic braking system itself.

Driverless car experts from law and academia called on Uber to release technical details of the accident so objective researchers can help figure out what went wrong and relay their findings to other driverless system makers and to the public.

It’s “important … that we all learn from this accident and we make these technologies even better. To that end Uber must release all of the data leading up to this crash,” said Alain Kornhauser, who heads the autonomous driving program at Princeton University.

Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor and driverless specialist at the University of South Carolina, said: “Although this appalling video isn’t the full picture, it strongly suggests a failure by Uber’s automated driving system and a lack of due care by Uber’s driver as well as by the victim.”

He noted that Waymo and General Motors have joined the federal government’s voluntary safety self-assessment program for driverless cars, but Uber has not.

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