Uber’s no-good, very-bad week in Arizona

Uber’s long, long list of problems got a little longer this week.

First, the National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the fatal crash involving a self-driving Uber and a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona confirmed what we already knew: the software powering Uber’s autonomous cars is deeply flawed.

According to data obtained from the self-driving system, the system first registered radar and LIDAR observations of the pedestrian about 6 seconds before impact, when the vehicle was traveling at 43 mph. As the vehicle and pedestrian paths converged, 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. At 1.3 seconds before impact, the self-driving system determined that an emergency braking maneuver was needed to mitigate a collision (see figure 2).[2]  According to Uber, emergency braking maneuvers are not enabled while the vehicle is under computer control, to reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior. The vehicle operator is relied on to intervene and take action. The system is not designed to alert the operator.

The self-driving system data showed that the vehicle operator intervened less than a second before impact by engaging the steering wheel. The vehicle speed at impact was 39 mph. The operator began braking less than a second after the impact. The data also showed that all aspects of the self-driving system were operating normally at the time of the crash, and that there were no faults or diagnostic messages. [emphasis ours]

And on a related note: remember how Arizona’s Trump-ish, business-friendly governor had a serious change of heart about Uber after the Tempe crash and suspended the company’s self-driving privileges? Well, Uber has gotten the hint, and on Wednesday, it shut down its autonomous vehicle program in Arizona for good, firing hundreds of employees in the process:

The company notified about 300 Arizona workers in the self-driving program that they were being terminated just before 9 a.m. Wednesday. The shutdown should take several weeks.

Test drivers for the autonomous cars have not worked since the accident in Tempe, but Uber said they continued to be paid. The company’s self-driving trucks have also been shelved since the accident.

Tempe police issued a statement Wednesday evening saying the department has completed its report on the collision involving the Ubert [sic] self-driving vehicle and submitted it to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. However, the report has not yet been released to the public.

“This is still considered an active investigation and as a result, we will not be releasing the report or details of the investigation,” the statement said. “Any information as to the outcome of the investigation will be available following the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office review and the completion of the investigation.”

Uber plans to restart testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh once federal investigators conclude their inquiry into the Tempe crash. Uber said it is having discussions with California leaders to restart testing.

As for that last paragraph, given the findings of the NTSB, it could take quite a while for Uber’s self-driving cars to hit the road again in Pennsylvania or California.

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