Innovation

Self-driving Uber crash that killed pedestrian should have been avoided, experts say

It is not yet known why the software in the Uber driverless car did not register the pedestrian or stop, according to experts.

Building a slide deck, pitch, or presentation? Here are the big takeaways:
  • An Uber vehicle in autonomous driving mode hit and killed a woman in Tempe, AZ, in the first known pedestrian fatality involving the self-driving technology.
  • Police are still investigating who is at fault in the fatal Uber crash, but experts agree that the vehicle's self-driving software should have registered the pedestrian crossing the road.

Sunday night's fatal accident in which an Uber SUV in autonomous driving mode struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, AZ should have been avoided by the car's sensor technology and the human safety driver behind the wheel, experts told our sister site CNET.

Video of the crash, showing the perspective of the driver and the pedestrian, was released by the Tempe police on Wednesday.

The video shows footage of the car approaching the victim, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, as she walks a bicycle across a dark road. The video also shows the vehicle safety driver, Rafaela Vasquez, sitting behind the wheel of the car and looking down at her lap, glancing up and gasping just as the car hits Herzberg.

SEE: IT leader's guide to the future of autonomous vehicles (Tech Pro Research)

The question remains: Could the accident have been avoided, either by the car's software or the human driver?

Autonomous artificial intelligence (AI) company Cortica evaluated the crash video exclusively for CNET. Its system detected the victim 0.9 seconds before impact, when the car was still about 50 feet away, CNET reported—enough time for the car to react and save the victim's life, according to Cortica CEO Igal Raichelgauz.

"The advantage of machine response time and control, the right actions could be made to certainly mitigate the damage," Raichelgauz told CNET.

Self-driving cars are equipped with technology such as LiDAR, cameras, and radar, and manufacturers claim that this tech can detect other cars and pedestrians on the road, during the day or at night.

"Although this video isn't the full picture, it strongly suggests a failure by Uber's automated driving system," Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies autonomous vehicles, told CNET. "The victim is obscured by darkness—but she is moving on an open road. Lidar and radar absolutely should have detected her and classified her as something other than a stationary object."

As for the human backup driver, "even if the safety driver had been totally paying attention, there's an awkwardness with the machine if you're anticipating the machine is going to be able to handle a situation," Gartner analyst Mike Ramsey told Bloomberg. "You don't know when you should jump in."

The Tempe police said that there were no signs of the vehicle slowing down before the crash, and that they were still investigating who was at fault.

"The video is disturbing and heartbreaking to watch, and our thoughts continue to be with Elaine's loved ones," an Uber spokeswoman said in a statement to CNET. "Our cars remain grounded, and we're assisting local, state and federal authorities in any way we can."

This was the first known pedestrian fatality involving Uber's self-driving technology, CNET reported. Uber has since temporarily stopped its self-driving operations in Tempe and all other cities where it has been testing its vehicles, including Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Toronto. Toyota and NuTonomy have also since temporarily suspended their testing efforts in the US. However, it was not the only accident that driverless cars have been involved in.

While self-driving cars are being tested all over the world, the technology remains in its infancy. The pedestrian fatality could have immediate implications for the rollout of self-driving taxis and delivery vehicles, which are predicted by many to be the first widespread applications of self-driving technology. It could mean that progress is slowed until more regulations are in place.

Also see

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Image: National Transportation Safety Board

About Alison DeNisco Rayome

Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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