Unpacking the Autonomous Uber Fatality as Details Emerge [Updated]
Details are trickling in about the fatal incident in Tempe, Arizona, where an autonomous Uber collided with a pedestrian earlier this week. While a true assessment of the situation is ongoing, the city’s police department seems ready to absolve the company of any wrongdoing.
“The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them,” explained Tempe police chief Sylvia Moir. “His first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision.”
This claim leaves us with more questions than answers. Research suggests autonomous driving aids lull people into complacency, dulling the senses and slowing reaction times. But most self-driving hardware, including Uber’s, uses lidar that can functionally see in pitch black conditions. Even if the driver could not see the woman crossing the street (there were streetlights), the vehicle should have picked her out clear as day.
The location of the accident further complicates things. Using information provided by local authorities and images from the scene, we found the the area where the accident took place. The location is a point in the road (northbound Mill Ave.) where a designated bike lane opens up to meet with traffic attempting to make a right turn. Following the incident, the self-driving SUV appears to have stopped in that turn lane with damage visible on the right side of its hood.
However, early reports (written prior to examining the car’s video data) claimed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was pushing a bicycle down the center median and crossed into the street when she was struck. There is a walking path there, which includes two pedestrian exits into to the street with a confusing “do not cross” sign. But how the damage came to be on the right side of the vehicle if Herzberg entered from the western median is difficult to make sense of — especially if there was no time to react. At the most likely point of entry, two lanes open for lefthand turns while northbound traffic continues on in the center. There is also a walkway that exits at a narrower point with just two lanes of northbound traffic, but it’s a bit further south.
According to the initial police report, the SUV was traveling at 38 mph and made no attempt to brake. “[Based on video evidence] it’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode [autonomous or not] based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway,” Moir told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Again, the Uber’s lidar should have taken care of that. But, if Herzberg did enter from the median as originally claimed, there is a chance she was obscured by trees until she was already in the road. As the police have not provided the on-board video from the vehicle or established a clear sequence of events, it’s hard to understand exactly what happened.
Moir said the incident occurred within 100 yards of a crosswalk, which would place Herzberg’s most-likely position in the bike line. But the probable entrance point from the median isn’t much further back, so it remains a possibility. We’re hoping the police release the video footage soon. While nobody is excited to see a tragic death caught on camera, it’s the best way to make sense of what happened. We’ve reached out to the Tempe Police Department for clarification and will update accordingly.
Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board has launched its own investigation into the incident. The team consists of Investigator-in-Charge Jennifer Morrison and three additional team members who will examine vehicle factors, human performance, and electronic recorders.
UPDATE: Sgt. Ronald Elcock of the Tempe Police Department confirmed for us that the Herzberg entered traffic from the west side of the road (via the median) and the accident occurred in the northbound lanes. The investigation is ongoing.
[Images: Uber; Google]
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