Uber hires senior safety official after deadly Arizona self-driving car crash
Uber’s new CEO told a New York City crowd that all technology companies, not just Facebook, must start making ethical decisions to minimize problematic impacts their innovations may have in society. (April 12)
SAN FRANCISCO — Uber has brought on a former head of the National Transportation Safety Board to conduct a “top-to-bottom” safety review of its self-driving car program, which killed a pedestrian in March.
The move comes as clouds of doubt gather over the ride-hailing company’s autonomous car initiative, which was rushed into existence a few years ago by ousted CEO Travis Kalanick and has been playing catch-up to the nine-year effort by Alphabet-owned Waymo.
Uber announced Monday that it was bringing on board former NTSB chairman Christoper Hart to “advise us on our overall safety culture,” said spokesperson Chelsea Kohler. “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.”
The company also said it continues to cooperate with NTSB officials looking into the March 31 crash in Tempe, where an Uber self-driving Volvo in autonomous mode failed to detect a pedestrian pushing a bike across the road.
Neither the car’s on-board sensors nor its safety driver, who in posted videos appears to be distracted until the fatal moment of impact, reacted to Elaine Herzberg, 49, who was fatally struck as she crossed a road at night.
On Monday, technology website The Information cited Uber executives in a report that suggested Uber’s software was responsible for the incident. Self-driving cars work by taking in information about their surroundings through a variety of sensors — radar, cameras and LiDAR, or light detection and ranging — which is then processed by the car’s on-board computer.
The Information report said that while engineers often tweak self-driving systems so they don’t react to false positives, such as a tumbleweed rolling across a road, Uber’s system had been de-tuned to the point where it could not react fast enough when presented with a pedestrian suddenly stepping into the path of the vehicle.
“Out of respect for that process (with the NTSB) and the trust we’ve built with NTSB, we can’t comment on the specifics of the incident,” Kohler said when asked about the report.
NTSB spokesperson Eric Weiss told USA TODAY that the agency was preparing a preliminary report on the crash “that will be issued in the coming weeks.”
After the Arizona accident, Uber immediately halted its testing program in the Phoenix area, but since then Arizona Governor Doug Ducey suspended the company’s right to test.
Waymo continues to run a limited passenger pick-up program in the Phoenix area with its self-driving Chrysler minivans, and has said it will begin picking up all pedestrians later this year.
A Waymo self-driving minivan was involved in an accident in Phoenix Friday. The Waymo car’s human driver was at the wheel when it was hit by another motorist, who was swerving to get out of the way of another vehicle.
Self-driving car technology is considered vital to companies such as Uber and Lyft, whose business models vastly improve if you remove the cost of paying human drivers. But recent accidents involving self-driving cars have caused some to question whether such tests should continue to be conducted on public roads.
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