"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.”
Uber Technologies Inc. has responded to concerns about its safety processes by hiring the former head of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board to advise it on safety after an internal investigation found that a software error caused the fatal crash involving one of their self-driving vehicles in March.
Christopher Hart was first acting chairman of the NTSB in August 2014 and then chairman between February 2015 and August 2017. He joins Uber at the same time The Information reported that Uber has found that a software fault, specifically how the software decides how the car should react to objects it detects, was to blame for the death of Arizona pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in March.
Initially it was believed that the pedestrian was at fault — particularly given that video footage (see below) showed the woman crossing a very dark stretch of road. But the investigation found that its autonomous vehicle software had been set in a way that caused it to ignore the pedestrian.
One of the many major challenges of autonomous vehicles on the road is distinguishing between objects that might prove a threat, and those that don’t. A car or pedestrian will need to be avoided, but a plastic bag floating in the road does not.
If the software is super cautious, journeys can be slow and jerky. If its programmed to not be sensitive, the ride will be smoother but it poses a risk of ignoring a real object.
In March, all the technology deployed on Uber’s self-driving car, including its LiDAR, radar and cameras, all detected the pedestrian despite the clear, provable fact that she was crossing the road in the dark, but the software issue ultimately ended in her demise.
Uber has not officially responded to the report, but did say in a statement that “we’re actively cooperating with the NTSB in their investigation” and that “out of respect for that process and the trust we’ve built with NTSB, we can’t comment on the specifics of the incident.”
Uber dashcam footage shows lead up to fatal self-driving crash (WARNING: Some readers may find this video upsetting).
The company has lauded its hiring of Hart. It said it has “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.”
In March of this year, a Tesla Model X SUV operating in autonomous mode slammed into a concrete highway lane divider and burst into flames. The driver, Wei Huang, died shortly afterwards at the hospital. Tesla released a statement illustrating that data showed the driver did not have his hands on the wheel, as recommended, and received several warnings from the system before the crash.
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