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Now We Know Why Uber’s Self-Driving Car Didn’t Brake Before Hitting and Killing Arizona Woman


The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a summary of its findings Thursday about the fatal self-driving Uber vehicle crash that occurred on March 18 in Tempe, Arizona. The NTSB said that the 44-year-old operator of a 2017 Volvo XC90, Rafaela Vasquez, had to “intervene and take action” by emergency braking because the self-driving system doesn’t emergency brake on its own, even though it recognizes emergency braking is needed.

The NTSB said the system recognized an object in the road six seconds before the death of 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg. It wasn’t until 1.3 seconds before Herzberg was hit that the car’s system “determined” that emergency braking was needed. The video of the incident above is 27 seconds long. The 21-second mark of the video shows that the Uber operator’s eyes are off the road and the 27-second mark shows her shock when the car hits and kills Herzberg.

Here’s the relevant portion of the news release from NTSB, which curiously mentions that Uber’s self-driving system recognizes things in the road but isn’t designed to tell the operator:

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. 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.

Uber also said that the operator is responsible for monitoring diagnostic messages on the vehicle dashboard, but there apparently were no such messages.

Not long after the incident, Uber reached a settlement with Herzberg’s family.

[Image via ABC screengrab]

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Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.