Arizona, Suppliers Unite Against Uber Self-driving Program

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Ever since last week’s fatal accident, in which an autonomous test vehicle from Uber struck a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, it seems like the whole world has united against the company. While the condemnation is not undeserved, there appears to be an emphasis on casting the blame in a singular direction to ensure nobody else gets caught up in the net of outrage. But it’s important to remember that, while Uber has routinely displayed a lack of interest in pursuing safety as a priority, all autonomous tech firms are being held to the same low standards imposed by both local and federal governments.

Last week, lidar supplier Velodyne said Uber’s failure was most likely on the software end as it defended the effectiveness of its hardware. Since then, Aptiv — the supplier for the Volvo XC90’s radar and camera — claimed Uber disabled the SUV’s standard crash avoidance systems to implement its own. This was followed up by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey issuing a suspension on all autonomous testing from Uber on Monday — one week after the incident and Uber’s self-imposed suspension.

Waymo, Uber’s bitterest rival on the autonomous research front, also chimed in to say that its self-driving systems would have avoided the accident.

“All that we can say is based on our knowledge of what we’ve seen so far … and our own knowledge of the robustness that we’ve designed into our systems … in situations like that one — in this case a pedestrian or a pedestrian with a bicycle — we have a lot of confidence that our technology would be robust and would be able to handle situations like that one,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik proclaimed at the National Automobile Dealers’ Association gathering in Las Vegas.

The Alphabet Inc. subsidiary has been careful not to shake the public’s fragile faith in self-driving technology. Waymo and General Motors are the only companies to have filed a Voluntary Safety Self-Assessment with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Granted, it’s an incredibly low bar for ensuring public safety, but it does show that Waymo seems to take it more seriously than Uber.

Meanwhile, new details are emerging as the investigation into the fatal crash. Aptiv, which supplies Volvo with the hardware necessary for its semi-autonomous safety suite, said Uber disabled its built-in systems so it could test its own. “We don’t want people to be confused or think it was a failure of the technology that we supply for Volvo, because that’s not the case,” Zach Peterson, a spokesman for Aptiv Plc, said in an interview with Bloomberg.

Subsequently, Intel Corp.’s Mobileye, which produces chips and sensors used in collision-avoidance systems for Aptiv, said it tested its own software by playing a video of the Uber incident on a television monitor. Despite the absolutely horrendous image fidelity, Mobileye claimed it was still able to detect the pedestrian shortly before impact — something Uber’s systems did not appear to do.

“The video released by the police seems to demonstrate that even the most basic building block of an autonomous vehicle system, the ability to detect and classify objects, is a challenging task,” Mobileye CEO Amnon Shashua wrote on Intel’s website. “It is this same technology that is required, before tackling even tougher challenges, as a foundational element of fully autonomous vehicles of the future.”

Arizona is also attempting to absolve itself of any wrongdoing. After a week of relative silence, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey sent a letter to Uber’s CEO.

“Improving public safety has always been the emphasis of Arizona’s approach to autonomous vehicle testing, and my expectation is that public safety is also the top priority for all who operate this technology in the state of Arizona,” Ducey said in his letter. “The incident that took place on March 18 is an unquestionable failure to comply with this expectation.”

It’s a major change in tone from the man who once welcomed all autonomous vehicles “with open arms and wide open roads,” mandating no special permits for testing. However, Ducey’s office did implement a registration process a few weeks before the accident and has established a self-driving car oversight committee.

All of this continues to bring up questions about responsibility. With suppliers understandably defending their technologies, are they somehow liable when their systems fail to save a life? Likewise, is it fair to place the full blame on Uber when the government allowed it to operate without any meaningful safety regulations? These are test vehicles, after all, and it hasn’t been confirmed whether or not the company’s safety driver would have been able to brake in time had more attention been given to the road ahead.

In the past, blame was attributable to decisions made by the pedestrian and motorist. In this case, both failed to make safety a priority, but the waters are further muddied by an electronic system designed to prevent an accident altogether. There’s so much to unpack here and we’ve only just scratched the surface.

[Image: Uber]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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3 of 39 comments
  • Garrett Garrett on Mar 27, 2018

    This whole thing is playing out like an autonomous vehicle version of the play Everyman.

  • Turf3 Turf3 on Mar 27, 2018

    How long are people going to go along with being guinea pigs for this? Or is the general public so computer-addled that anything with "computer" and "tech" and "new" in the name gets a free pass? At a minimum the vehicle in question should have applied full brake before hitting the pedestrian. I see no indication that happened. Among other indicators is the video of the monitor; if that had happened the "driver" monitor would have been flung forward against the seat belts. Didn't happen.

    • Vulpine Vulpine on Mar 27, 2018

      I repeat: According to an article on Automotive News this morning, UBER physically disabled some of the anti-collision systems, which allowed this to happen.

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