Will Uber’s Self-Driving Car Program Survive After Pedestrian Death?
Roopinder Tara posted on April 03, 2018 |
First pedestrian fatality for self-driving cars may end a program already in trouble.

Elaine Herzberg, 49 years old, homeless, pushed her bike laden with plastic bags across a road in Tempe, Ariz. It was 10 pm, Sunday, March 18, 2018. She didn’t see the SUV until it was too late. The Volvo XC90 was in autonomous mode, and on the vehicle were $150,000 worth of sensing hardware, including LiDAR, radar and cameras. It was a system developed by Uber, the ridesharing company. Inside was a “safety driver,” hired by Uber to be alert should the system fail. Herzberg was taken to the hospital where she was pronounced dead.

Uber moves its self-driving cars from San Francisco to Arizona after a dispute with the city as to what constituted a self driving car and would require a permit. Many of the city’s residents were not unhappy. (Image courtesy of Uber.)
Uber moves its self-driving cars from San Francisco to Arizona after a dispute with the city as to what constituted a self driving car and would require a permit. Many of the city’s residents were not unhappy. (Image courtesy of Uber)

Uber, once the darling of Silicon Valley, flush with cash ($21 billion in investment) and sky-high valuation ($50 billion) has been beset with a series of widely reported mishaps. The company’s self-driving initiative, for which Arizona serves as its testing ground, was under pressure to perform. A visit from the new Uber CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, was set for this month. The company wanted to go full driverless by the end of the year. The cars were underperforming, struggling to meet a goal of “13 miles per human intervention.”

Meanwhile rival Google’s Waymo was reporting 5,600 miles between steering wheel takeovers. The cars were having trouble in construction zones, and failing to recognize and react to certain objects, according to The New York Times. Despite issues, test drivers that once paired up were asked to work alone.

A Short History of Mishaps

Founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick's antics—such as chastising an Uber driver, spying on investigative reporters and leading a company with a toxic environment for women,—resulted in a massive #DeleteUber Twitter campaign that in its first week, #DeleteUber resulted in half a million fewer users, according to the New York Times. London revoked Uber's license to operate ridesharing services saying the company did not engage in behavior that was "fit and proper”, such as not reporting sexual attacks by drivers who were hired after lax background checks. London’s very professional cabbies had protested en masse. So had cabbies all over the world.

Hiring Like Mad

Uber had been on a hiring binge. The company famous for bringing ridesharing to the world was on a course to replace the very drivers who had made this possible, by making much of their ride services sans driver.

Uber had set up an office in Pittsburgh and announced a strategic partnership with Carnegie Mellon University. It wasn’t long before they started offering signing bonuses of hundreds of thousands of dollars and doubling salaries to top researchers to lure them into Uber. It was an offer many an academic could not refuse and 40 of them left CMU, leaving the once proud robotics institute in a crisis, reported the Wall Street Journal.

Google's self driving division, Waymo, sued Uber for hiring Anthony Levandowski, who allegedly brought Waymo's trade secrets with him. Uber settled that case in February, giving Google an increased stake in Uber, which at that time was worth $245 million, according to CNN.

A Local Issue

Uber, a San Francisco-based company, had trouble testing its self-driving cars locally. Not only were they filmed running red lights, but they were criticized as being a menace to cyclists by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition for their failure to turn properly, cutting across bike lanes and endangering cyclists. Uber was chalking up one collision after another.

Uber moved its self-driving operation to Arizona after California's Department of Motor Vehicles revoked Uber’s registration for its 16 autonomous vehicles. Uber had been operating in San Francisco without a permit required for self-driving cars. Uber had insisted that law did not apply to its self-driving cars.

Arizona’s governor Doug Ducey lost no time in welcoming Uber with open arms and could not resist shooting barbs in California’s direction. "California may not want you, but Arizona does," Ducey said when he took the first ride as a passenger in Uber's self-driving cars in April 2017.

Uber’s Volvo goes through an orange light at 38 mph, hitting a Honda CD-V and two other cars, before turning on its side. No one was killed. The driver in the Honda was issued a ticket for failure to yield. (Image courtesy of Fresco News.)
Uber’s Volvo goes through an orange light at 38 mph, hitting a Honda CR-V and two other cars, before turning on its side. No one was killed. The driver in the Honda was issued a ticket for failure to yield. (Image courtesy of Fresco News.)

But Uber’s fleet of a hundred Volvo XC90 SUVs would have problems in Arizona, too. Two accidents last year were blamed on human error: one that left an Uber Volvo ignominiously on its side after proceeding speed unchecked (38 mph) through a yellow light and colliding with a Honda CR-V SUV that was making a left turn in front of it.

It was doing exactly what it was programmed to do, said Uber. We calculate if the car can make it through the intersection on a yellow light. There was no need to slow down.

A witness reported that the Uber car looked like it was trying to beat the light. The Honda SUV driver said the Uber car came “flying through the intersection.” The Honda driver got a citation.

Uber Grounded

A week after Elaine's death, Governor Ducey pulled back the welcome mat, banning Uber's self-driving program. The ban was indefinite. Although 20 self-driving car companies are said to be testing in Arizona, Uber was the only one banned.


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