Software bug reportedly behind fatal self-driving Uber accident

8 May 2018

Uber logo on mobile phone. Image: BigTunaOnline/Shutterstock

Anonymous sources say a problem with Uber’s self-driving software caused a fatal crash.

It has been a tumultuous 2018 for Uber, particularly its autonomous driving project, in the wake of the death of Arizona woman Elaine Herzberg in March of this year.

Herzberg was wheeling her bicycle across the road in Tempe, a suburb of Phoenix, when an Uber self-driving SUV fatally hit her.

The company has since reached a settlement with the victim’s surviving family and now, a report from The Information has said a likely cause for the crash has been determined.

The car’s sensors apparently detected Herzberg as she crossed the street, but Uber’s software decided that an immediate reaction to the obstacle (namely, the pedestrian) was unnecessary.

A fatal ‘false positive’

Two anonymous sources told The Information that the software had detected Herzberg as a ‘false positive’, deciding that the SUV did not need to stop.

This is one of the fundamental challenges in terms of developing self-driving technology. While cars need to detect pedestrians and trees, they also need to be able to safely ignore other objects, such as a plastic bag or other errant rubbish.

Amir Efrati of The Information explained that the company had been in a hurry to meet a particular business goal at the time of the crash. “Uber had been racing to meet an end-of-year internal goal of allowing customers in the Phoenix area ride in Uber’s autonomous Volvo vehicles with no safety driver sitting behind the wheel.”

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is still investigating the incident. Due to the ongoing probe, Uber was unable to comment on the reports, but issued the following comment to The Verge: “We’re actively cooperating with the NTSB in their investigation. Out of respect for that process and the trust we’ve built with NTSB, we can’t comment on the specifics of the incident.

“In the meantime, we have initiated a top-to-bottom safety review of our self-driving vehicles programme, and we have brought on former NTSB chair Christopher Hart to advise us on our overall safety culture.

“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.”

Other issues at Uber

Reports show that Uber’s self-driving programme has been experiencing other issues. A New York Times report found that the company had reduced the number of safety drivers in test vehicles from two to one, while Reuters found that the number of LiDAR sensors in Uber test cars had also been reduced.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in an April TV interview that the firm was committed to self-driving innovation, despite the many reports.

Uber is not the only company being investigated by the NTSB, as Elon Musk’s Tesla is also undergoing a probe following the death of a driver in one of its Model X vehicles. Walter Huang was killed in March when his car, which was driving on autopilot, crashed near Mountain View in California. Tesla vehemently denies its car was at fault, stating that numerous warnings were issued to Huang prior to the crash.

Despite these incidents, interest from the public in autonomous cars is still present and tech firms around the globe are continuing to pursue various autonomous vehicle strategies.

Uber logo on mobile phone. Image: BigTunaOnline/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects