By on March 31, 2017

uber volvo

The recent collision in Tempe, Arizona, where an Uber Technologies driverless Volvo collided with another vehicle before rolling onto its side, might not have been as cut and dried as it originally seemed. While the Tempe Police Department originally deemed the autonomous car not to be at fault, the incident report suggest that it might have been taking the same sort of risks that any inattentive flesh-based operator might have.

EE Times obtained copies of the police report and reached out to Mike Demler, senior analyst at The Linley Group, to make sense of exactly what happened at the scene. The popular assumption was that a Ford Edge failed to yield during a left hand turn, impacting with the Volvo XC90 test vehicle and forcing it onto its side.

That’s not quite how it happened. 

According to Demler’s analysis and the accounts listed in the police report, the first vehicle to make contact was actually a Honda CR-V that failed to yield. The Edge was struck afterward. While that places the legal blame squarely upon the Honda, it’s worth mentioning that traffic leading up to the intersection had stopped in the left and and center lanes after the light turned yellow.

Here’s how it happened: the Honda driver — already in the intersection — assumed it was safe to make the turn as traffic stopped in anticipation for the red. Seeing the Volvo approaching mid-turn, the driver immediately applied the brakes but still managed to make contact with its left side as it continued through the rightmost lane of the intersection.

The Volvo operator — who was allowing the vehicle to run in autonomous mode — states that the XC90 impacted with the CR-V at roughly the posted speed limit of 40 mph, making no attempt to stop. It had not reacted to the changing light or the slowing traffic.

Demler states that the self-driving Volvo took a pretty minor hit form the Honda but went out of control — colliding with a traffic signal pole as it veered right. The police report clearly states, “After it hit the pole on its passenger side, the Volvo bounced off, spun & flipped over, hitting vehicles #3 and #4, which were stopped in traffic in the middle lane.”

That’s when it collided with the Ford and Hyundai seen in the dramatic photo tweeted by the Fresco News.

While this still places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the the left-turning Honda CR-V, the Uber’s autonomous systems didn’t really do much to prevent a collision. You would assume that, with traffic at a standstill and the light changing, the Volvo’s computer would have decided to engage in some defensive driving.

The human occupants were clearly oblivious to one another until it was too late, but what was the Uber’s onboard systems doing in the moments leading up to the crash?

Demler had similar concerns. “The Volvo’s roof-mounted LIDAR should have been able to see the CR-V, though its radar and cameras may have been blocked by the stalled traffic on its left. It may have been traveling at too high a speed to properly react in time. The Volvo’s mapping/location software should have known there’s a left turn lane on both northbound and southbound [streets], so any vehicle in that lane intends to turn left.”

So, now that we know what happened, what the hell happened?

Uber hasn’t commented further and has urged any interested parties to reach out to the Tempe Police Department for additional information on the matter.

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35 Comments on “Autonomous Uber That Crashed in Arizona May Have Been Less Innocent Than Previously Thought...”

  • avatar

    Sounds to me like there will need to be some updates put in place pretty quickly. Generally, proceeding through a yellow light at full speed is frowned upon when human drivers do it (although they all do).

    • 0 avatar

      “proceeding through a yellow light at full speed”

      An AV performing precisely like a brainless meatsack is somewhat disenchanting.

      • 0 avatar

        Proceeding through a yellow light at full speed is the correct thing to do.
        Either you determine that you won’t clear the intersection before the light turns red and stop, or you proceed through at the speed you were going.
        Both charging the yellow and slowing visibly are doing something unexpected and increases your chances of getting hit.

        • 0 avatar

          With modern head restraint, better a rear-ender from the brainless meatsack ignoring my brake lights than a head-on or t-bone in the intersection.

        • 0 avatar
          George B

          If traffic is stopped dead in other lanes, an experienced driver would proceed cautiously. It’s likely that someone will change lanes in front of you or there’s something happening up ahead that’s caused traffic to back up. Better to slow down than to suddenly discover that something at full speed.

        • 0 avatar

          12 or 13 states have restrictive yellow laws on their books, requiring you to stop at a yellow “if you can” and worse yet allowing LEO’s to use their judgement of what that means in issuing citations.

      • 0 avatar

        “An AV performing precisely like a brainless meatsack is somewhat disenchanting.”

        Meatsacks creating in their own image. It’s not pretty.

    • 0 avatar

      If I understand the situation correctly, the Uber Volvo was in the curb lane of a road with two through lanes and a left turn lane in each direction. Traffic was backed up in the inner lane next to it. Assuming it saw the yellow light (not guaranteed), I suspect its AI calculated that it had time to get through the intersection and saw that its lane was clear ahead. A human driver would have considered the possibility that an oncoming vehicle might turn in front of it or that an impatient driver in the inner lane might pull into the curb lane without looking. Some time in the future, when all vehicles in the vicinity would be exchanging information, the AI’s analysis would be correct. We’re not there yet.

      • 0 avatar

        “Some time in the future, when all vehicles in the vicinity would be exchanging information, the AI’s analysis would be correct. We’re not there yet.”

        Vehicle to vehicle, and vehicle to infrastructure is a step in the right direction. But once we get to that future, how reliable will the network be? We have to plan for outages, as they happen today, and are guaranteed to happen tomorrow.

    • 0 avatar

      Where I reside, it is a custom to drive slowly through greens but when its yellow 88MPH BABY!

      • 0 avatar

        Where I live there are casinos and at night sapient drivers have adopted an exaggerated caution around intersections to signal “I’m sober and won’t blow this light or turn across your path.”

        In the absence of such signalling *everyone* approaching you and especially at intersections is assumed to be a drunken piece of sh1t.

        All of us who aren’t have many stories of how often that assumption proved true and only Paranoid Mode kept us out of an accident.

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff Semenak

      Living here in Tempe, I regularly see 4-5 cars running yellow to Really Red in the Left Turn Lane. I live roughly 3 miles away near McClintock at Baseline Rd. There is a mental process here, that if you REALLY want to turn; it would be terrible to make you wait. That and, the Valley Metro Light Rail run down Apache Blvd. right there.Was there a Train there? Or, maybe the overheads for the Pantograph on the train confuse LIDAR?

  • avatar

    This isn’t terribly shocking. As I pointed out (and was excoriated for) in the previous post about this event, you can still cause an accident even if you’re not technically at fault, whether you’re a computer or a human, and the context awareness that allows humans to avoid accidents in these kinds of “I have a bad feeling about this” situations is precisely the kind of thing that’s the most difficult to program. Obeying the rules *isn’t enough*, and not being at fault *isn’t enough*, and that’s a distinction that I suspect a lot of people don’t want to hear right now.

    • 0 avatar

      Exactly. When a light turns yellow, not only do I determine if I can make it through legally, I determine if I can make it through safely. If there is a car waiting to make a left turn across my path, I always error on the side of caution and stop, even if I could have made the light.

      • 0 avatar

        Where I live, unless you are already in the intersection when the light changes to yellow, you are technically running a red light. Don’t know if this specific to my state or a national axiom.

        • 0 avatar

          That sounds odd. In most jurisdictions it means stop if you are safely able to do so. If I’m 10 feet out of the intersection going 50, I’m not going to be able to stop if the light turns yellow.

          • 0 avatar

            It is possible the law enforcement officer who gave me that info was assuming I was referring to in town – 25 – 35 mph – driving. Being 10 feet from an intersection, doing 50, light turns yellow I would agree with you that attempting a safe stop to be impractical if not downright dangerous to yourself and other traffic.

          • 0 avatar

            50 to 0 in ten feet is not just impractical, it’s impossible. You’d need at least 70 feet.

            The officer was wrong, regardless of jurisdiction. You’d have to somehow be able to predict when the yellow will occur to be sure you don’t enter the intersection when the light is yellow. They would need some sort of a pre-yellow light for that to make any sense.

            I actually like red light cameras for that reason. An officer could perceive a situation incorrectly, but when there’s a photo of you approaching the intersection with the light red, and then another of you going through the intersection with the light still red, there’s nothing to argue.

  • avatar

    Instead of growing pains, we not got crashing pains. How long b4 people start getting hurt? I am sure if the Uber car had had a n alert driver, this accident would not have occurred.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Let’s see:

    Honda + driver
    Ford + driver
    Hyundai + driver
    Volvo + operator

    There could be a minimum of 8 attorneys and 8 insurance companies involved in this fracas. I’m no lawyer, but I’d certainly want a portion of my settlement to come from from the ‘robot’ car and its allegedly negligent operator.

    Wait, certainly Volvo will say their car and its operator aren’t as fault. Why should they write a huge settlement check without challenging the reason for it? So as usual, the blame game will happen in the *conventional* way.

    Once these cases become notorious, what driver will enable their AV system?

    • 0 avatar

      “Once these cases become notorious, what driver will enable their AV system?”

      Use of AV systems need to be confined to controlled and legally approved environments where the tech and roads and infrastructure support them. This can include upgraded commuter corridors, campuses, executive parks, technology centers. AV should be illegal everywhere else.

      This position certainly won’t be popular with Uber or Tesla or companies that tout autopilot, but it’s the right way to grow.

  • avatar

    The situation finally makes sense. It seemed odd that they’d pull the autonomous vehicle just because somebody else screwed up and ran into it. The autonomous vehicle may not be at fault, but it might have displayed incompetence in two ways:

    1. It should have been more wary of the possibility of a left-turning vehicle in that situation. Almost all of my focus is on the left-turning vehicle when I drive through a yellow light. That often determines whether I will stop or proceed for those 50/50 situations where you can do either safely.

    2. It probably should have been able to maintain control of the vehicle after a minor impact. I doubt it can even steer fast enough for a proper yaw correction.

    • 0 avatar

      In my jurisdiction if I’m doing a left turn, I pull 1/3 of the way into the intersection and wait for opposing traffic to clear. Once the light turn yellow and those who can’t stop have gone through I have the right of way over all other traffic, even those on the cross street who may have a green while I’m waiting for opposing traffic to clear.

      It’s also illegal for me to chicken out and back up. I can only proceed forward and finish my turn.

      One thing I didn’t see here, was did the Volvo run a yellow when could it have stopped?

      • 0 avatar

        How would anyone legally prove whether someone could have stopped? What is the relevant language of your traffic law?

        Mine is:

        If a traffic light at an intersection displays only an amber light:
        (a) the driver of a vehicle facing the light shall stop at the crosswalk, but, if the vehicle cannot be brought to a stop with safety, he may drive cautiously through the intersection;

        Yielding right of way

        (3) When the driver of a vehicle intends to turn left across the path of any vehicle approaching from the opposite direction, he shall yield the right of way and shall not make the turn until he has afforded a reasonable opportunity to the driver of the approaching vehicle to avoid a collision.

        So I suppose it could be argued that the driver going straight could have brought the vehicle to a “stop with safety”, or that the driver turning left “afforded a reasonable opportunity” for the driver going straight to avoid the collision, but you’d have to find a way to prove those things in court.

        Even if the driver going straight ran the red, you’d need good witnesses to prove it. Good luck with the analysis to prove that they should have stopped for a yellow.

        This is why I actually like red light cameras at major intersections. Even if the whole event was on video from multiple angles, there’s no way to definitively prove that a vehicle should have stopped for a yellow light. There’s no standard measure for a driver’s reaction times or braking judgement and ability. But it can be easily proven with two photos whether a vehicle entered the intersection illegally against a red.

  • avatar

    It guess it takes a bunch of Uber guys, to turn Volvos, out of all cars, into late-yellow running scofflaws.

    I did hear that next season of the “deadliest jobs” reality show, will follow a group of AV test drivers around Tempe and Pittsburgh.

  • avatar

    Uber is going to need waymo time to develop its autonomous car….

  • avatar

    Maybe its AI contains this short code: Lorem ipsa loqitor 0010110001101010011110

    Translation…..”Kill all humans.”

  • avatar

    Further compounding the problem in Arizona is the somewhat unusual setup that left turn only lights are split 50/50 when they turn green. Half the intersections turn green before the thru traffic lights turn green (which is how I’ve seen it in every other state I’ve lived in) and half the intersections turn green after the thru lights turn red. It took some getting used to when we first moved here. And we’ve seen several accidents with cars turning left when they assumed the green light was after the thru red. Not sure of the rationale for having the left turn light go green after the thru red, but it is definitely a different way to handle intersection traffic.

  • avatar

    @ rpn453: It’s possible my question to the officer was poorly worded. He may have assumed I meant a car which could stop safely entering an intersection with the light already yellow. I agree with your comment – it would be impossible for a car going 50 to stop in 10 feet. I apologize for my poor choice of words.

    • 0 avatar

      Your example was reasonable and your point was valid. I was just trying to make the idea of it being illegal in any way to enter an intersection under yellow sound as ridiculous as I perceived it to be.

      I responded to your post before looking up my own actual traffic law in that later post of mine. The officer may have been technically correct in some circumstances if the wording is anything like that of my own province. But it would be difficult to practically apply that element as the judgement of what is safe is entirely subjective. I think it’s intentionally vague to allow for subjectivity in a judge or jury’s decision; to account for the possibility of unusual circumstances.

  • avatar

    When all cars can talk with one another, this might not happen!

  • avatar

    Given that the at fault driver was trying to make a left and the Vovo had a yellow, doesn’t that mean if she waited three more seconds she could have just gone left as oncoming traffic now had a red?

    I don’t know that I rountinely expect people to make aggressive moves when the light they need is about to turn green. I expect them to do it when their light is about to turn red.

  • avatar

    Uber acted like a binary device, and the human in CRV acted like a human. I had an accident just like this one, where I was driving like a binary device. I think Ronnie S. also had something similar in his Fit. Ever since, I am double weary when I am in what appears like a clear lane next to a lane of stopped cars.

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