Uber’s self-driving car that ran over and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, in March could have avoided the deadly collision or at least mitigated it had Uber not disengaged the vehicle’s emergency braking system, a preliminary report indicates.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said in its preliminary report of the deadly collision that Uber’s modified 2017 Volvo XC90’s radar systems observed the pedestrian six seconds before impact but “the self-driving system software classified the pedestrian as an unknown object, as a vehicle, and then as a bicycle with varying expectations of future travel path.”
The self-driving Uber determined that emergency braking was needed at 1.3 seconds before the impact, but Uber had disengaged the vehicle’s emergency braking system to “reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior,” the NTSB found.
According to NTSB investigators:
The vehicle was factory equipped with several advanced driver assistance functions by Volvo Cars, the original manufacturer. The systems included a collision avoidance function with automatic emergency braking, known as City Safety, as well as functions for detecting driver alertness and road sign information. All these Volvo functions are disabled when the test vehicle is operated in computer control but are operational when the vehicle is operated in manual control.
Compounding the problem was the lack of a system to alert the human safety driver that emergency braking might be needed. Dashcam video footage released by Tempe police shows the safety driver looking down in the moments before the collision.
The inward-facing video shows the vehicle operator glancing down toward the center of the vehicle several times before the crash. In a postcrash interview with NTSB investigators, the vehicle operator stated that she had been monitoring the self-driving system interface. The operator further stated that although her personal and business phones were in the vehicle, neither was in use until after the crash, when she called 911.
The NTSB said that all aspects of the crash remain under investigation.
Arizona’s governor suspended Uber’s license to test self-driving vehicles in the state after the Tempe accident, which killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg as she was walking her bike across the road at night.
Uber plans to resume testing its self-driving vehicles on a restricted basis in Pittsburgh and two California cities.