Uber driverless car in fatal crash 'could not detect jaywalking pedestrians'

Olivia Rudgard
Scrutiny for the incident had been directed at the car's safety driver, who had been watching TV on her phone at the time of the crash

Uber's self-driving cars could not detect pedestrians unless they were on crossings when one hit and killed a woman last year, a US watchdog has found. 

The car which hit and killed Elaine Herzberg, 49, on a darkened road in Tempe, Arizona, had a system which “did not include a consideration for jaywalking pedestrians”, a report by the National Transportation Safety Board found. 

Uber told investigators that did its self-driving cars, which were being tested in the city, “did not have the capability to classify an object as a pedestrian unless that object was near a crosswalk”. 

Ms Herzberg was also pushing a bicycle on the night in March last year, which caused the system to incorrectly classify her and fail to predict her path across the road.

It told the watchdog this had now changed and it had reprogrammed vehicles to slow down when unable to recognise an object.

The car hit her at 39mph, with the human backup driver failing to brake until after she had been struck.

The incident was the first fatal accident involving a self-driving car, and led to Uber suspending their testing of self-driving cars for several months. 

Before the accident in March last year, Uber's self-driving cars had been involved in 37 incidents since September 2016, 33 of which involved other cars hitting one of the Uber vehicles, the NTSB found.

In one of the other cases, a car had failed to identify and struck a bent cycle lane bollard which was partly sticking into its lane. 

Uber had also disabled the Volvo's own advance collision warning system because of concerns that it would interfere with Uber's own technology. 

Its self-driving technology could not perform an emergency braking manoeuvre in order to “reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior,” the organisation's preliminary report said.

“The vehicle operator is relied on to intervene and take action. The system is not designed to alert the operator.”

The company had also changed its policy six month earlier to allow just one human operator to supervise the self-driving system, rather than the two which had previously been required. 

Previously much of the scrutiny for the incident had been directed at the car's safety driver, who had been watching TV on her phone at the time of the crash.

She also had four previous convictions for breaking road laws, including one for driving without a licence and two for speeding.

Unlike in the UK, in many US states, including Arizona, jaywalking - crossing the road somewhere other than a pedestrian crossing - is illegal. 

A spokeswoman for Uber said: “In the wake of this tragedy, the team at Uber ATG has adopted critical program improvements to further prioritize safety. 

“We deeply value the thoroughness of the NTSB’s investigation into the crash and look forward to reviewing their recommendations once issued after the NTSB’s board meeting later this month.”