The self-driving Uber car that killed a pedestrian was not designed to automatically brake in an emergency: NTSB report

Spencer Platt/Getty
  • On March 18, 2018, a self-driving Uber car struck and killed a pedestrian during a test-run in Arizona.
  • There was an operator present in the car, but she didn’t begin braking until after the accident, the report says.
  • The car was not designed to automatically brake in an emergency while in self-driving mode.

A report conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board(NTSB) reveals that the self-driving Uber car that struck and killed a pedestrian was aware of the pedestrian’s presence, but was not designed to automatically brake, the report says.

The incident occurred around around 10 p.m. on March 18, 2018, while the car had been in self-driving mode for about 19 minutes. The car’s onboard computer registered a pedestrian crossing the road about six seconds before impact, and at 1.3 seconds before impact the car determined that an emergency braking manoeuvre was necessary, according to the data in the report.

The operator took action less than a second before impact, the report says, by moving the steering wheel. At the time of impact, the car was moving at 39 mph, the report says. In addition, data showed that the operator didn’t begin braking until less than a second after the impact.

Uber car onboard computerNTSBData from the car’s onboard computer shows it had detected a pedestrian before the impact.

However, according to the NTSB, Uber’s self-driving cars are not designed to automatically brake, and instead the car relied on the operator to take emergency measures in this instance. The report states that Uber’s reasoning for not automatically braking while under computer control is “to reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behaviour.” The operator can disengage from self-driving mode “by providing input to the steering wheel, brake pedal, accelerator pedal, a disengage button, or a disable button,” the report says.

The car was equipped with interior cameras, forward- and side-facing cameras, radars, LIDAR, navigation sensors, and a computing and data storage unit, according to the report. The cameras captured the incident, which showed the pedestrian crossing the road wearing dark clothing without side reflectors, the report says. The report states that the bicycle had front and rear reflectors and a headlamp, but they were facing away from the car before the impact. Finally, the report says the pedestrian was in an area of the road that wasn’t illuminated by roadway lighting.

Volvo involved in Uber self-driving crashNTSBThe Uber self-driving Volvo wasn’t designed to automatically brake in an emergency.

The interior cameras captured the operator looking down at the center console several times before the crash, the report says, but in an interview with NTSB the operator claimed she was monitoring the self-driving interface. She said she didn’t use her phone until after the crash, when she called 911.

No toxicology tests were conducted on the operator, according to the report, but law enforcement officers at the scene stated she did not seem impaired. The incident is still under investigation by NTSB as they attempt to determine probable cause.

An Uber spokesperson said the company is working on making safety improvements and acquiring additional testing permits, and will not resume road testing until those steps are completed. After resuming tests, the company intends to test in a more limited fashion, the spokesperson said.

Uber offered the following statement:

“Over the course of the last two months, we’ve worked closely with the NTSB. As their investigation continues, we’ve initiated our own safety review of our self-driving vehicles program. We’ve also brought on former NTSB Chair Christopher Hart to advise us on our overall safety culture, and we look forward to sharing more on the changes we’ll make in the coming weeks.”

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