By on August 19, 2019

vision 2.0 NHTSA Autonomous vehicles

Over the past year the automotive industry has carefully walked back the expectations surrounding autonomous cars. Yet pretty much any change in rhetoric constitutes retracted goals. With numerous companies predicting self-driving fleets of commercial vehicles before 2021, the bar couldn’t have been set much higher.

A lack of progress is partly to blame. However, a bundle of high-profile accidents have also shaken public trust — especially after it was found that Uber whistleblower Robbie Miller was trying to alert the company to issues with its self-driving program just days before one of the company’s autonomous Volvos was involved in a fatal accident with a pedestrian.

That’s not the half of it. In April, Miller released a study claiming self-driving vehicles were actually recording incident rates higher than that of your typical motorist. Contrasting data from the Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP) and the California DMV, he concluded that autonomous test vehicles created more injuries per mile than the average human motorist with a few years of practice. 

That’s not what we’re being sold. Automakers have repeatedly suggested that AV testing is a gateway to a safer world, with major breakthroughs close at hand. But Miller argued that focusing on the number of miles a manufacturer covers with its self-driving fleet doesn’t yield much more than reduced public safety.

“I want to make the road safer,” Miller, a former Uber operations manager and current chief safety officer at a California-based company developing advanced driver-assist systems for the trucking industry, explained to Automotive News. “Other programs out there, you know, they’re basically spouting science fiction about things that are years away.”

From Automotive News:

Miller’s caution comes from personal experience. While working as an operations manager at Uber in 2018, he was alarmed that the company’s self-driving test cars were “routinely in accidents resulting in damage” and that collisions occurred “every 15,000 miles.” Those are passages from a prescient email to several Uber executives in which he outlined his concerns and urged a review of the self-driving program, particularly warning that human safety drivers needed to be better trained.

He sent that email on March 13, 2018. Three days later, Miller left his job.

Five days after he sent the email, an Uber self-driving test vehicle struck and killed Elaine Herzberg, a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz., a death that continues to reverberate through the fledgling industry.

In his study, he alleged that too many automakers and tech firms rely on misleading benchmarks, reframing setbacks, and focus too much on the amount of testing vs technological progress.

“The miles per disengagement metric is a bad metric for measuring progress and is not meaningful in terms of safety. Companies inflate their miles per disengagement to appear further along and use their own absurd definitions of what a disengagement is — effectively erasing thousands of safety-related disengages. Companies that report their disengages honestly appear much further behind. Furthermore, this metric incentivize safety drivers to not disengage in unsafe situations,” he said. “Relying on the wrong metrics or not looking at real data has unfortunately propelled us into the realm of safety theater — meaning creating the illusion of safety instead of actually delivering on safety.”

With Congress likely to move ahead with legislation regarding the safe deployment of self-driving vehicles as early as next month, we’re past due for a critical analysis of the technology. Unfortunately, most of the data given to legislators is coming from tech firms and auto giants with an interest in playing up the positive aspects. A common chorus is that AVs will save anywhere from 3,000 to 37,500 American lives per year. However, it rides on the presumption that they’ll be more effective than human drivers, something that has yet to be proven.

Miller’s fear is that this will taint the metrics used to develop the laws governing autonomous vehicles. For example, automakers are supposed to submit voluntary reports to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. One of his core grievances is that “companies misuse this well-intentioned process as a public relations tactic to submit glossy safety brochures with little substance.” Having seen some ourselves, we know he’s not ranting and raving about nothing. Most of these reports read like a sales pamphlet.

He does, however, take time to praise his current employer in his industrial analysis — leaving us wondering how much of it was a sales pitch for Pronto vs a call for sanity. Helmed by Anthony Levandowski, who you’ll remember from the Uber/Waymo intellectual property case, the trucking startup openly touts its commitment to safety and a gradual path toward automated driving.

[Image: NHTSA]

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18 Comments on “Uber Whistleblower: Autonomous Vehicles Need New Safety Metrics, Aren’t Really Any Safer...”


  • avatar
    R Henry

    I envision a ribbon of tarmac running from Santa Monica, CA to Jacksonville, FL, either parallel or part of Interstate 10, that will be open only to autonomous heavy trucks. They will be networked, so each truck in the closed system can communicate with the others. There will be staging areas ever 50 miles where loaded trucks driven by human, are dropped off, and sent on the thru-way to a staging area on the other side of the country…where a human driver will make the delivery.

    This is the only scenario I see as even remotely plausible for commercial success. Until this is accomplished successfully, with all the requisite lessons learned, I ignore all the other blather about autonomous vehicles.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      Even better, substitute the asphalt for something more efficient to roll on like steel. Even use solid steel wheels for even more efficiency. Instead of a flat road, use two steel rails and put flanges on the wheels so they follow the road without having to steer. Next, physically link all of the truck trailers together with 1 or more giant trucks at the front pulling all of the trailers. I’m gonna see if I can patent this so don’t tell anyone. Keep it a secret.

      • 0 avatar
        TR4

        How about powering this device with an external combustion engine fueled by wood? Renewable resources!!

      • 0 avatar
        kcflyer

        I think you are on to something. Can you hire me to drive the truck in front? Give me crazy hours but pay me well. I can have a cool title like “truck engineer”

      • 0 avatar
        APaGttH

        Rearden steel – the best steel there is.

      • 0 avatar
        SPPPP

        Pure genius, mcs! Better get down to the patent office fast – that Musk rarely misses a trick! :)

      • 0 avatar
        stuki

        “We” can do better than that by now. Electric propulsion doesn’t really get much more efficient at locomotive vs individual container scale. And the flexibility benefits of powering individual containers vs trains is huge.

        The general gist is dead on, though: Robots will never beat humans at being human. Meaning, at operating in a wide open, unrestricted environment populated by, among other things, other humans. What they can, and will, however beat humans at, is efficient operation in environments specifically designed for them: Networks limited to, and designed for, them alone.

        Maglev or steel on steel (with a set of rubber wheels for last mile), with power to simultaneously propel and recharge built into the infrastructure itself (hence requiring only last mile battery capacity, always topped off whenever leaving the “highway”) is still far and away the most realistic candidate for a substantial improvement in transportation over what we currently have. You’ll have very high speed autonomous operation over long distances, only requiring driver intervention for last mile. And minimal size, weight and resources tied up in powering each car.

  • avatar
    TR4

    How about powering this device with an external combustion engine fueled by wood? Renewable resources!!

  • avatar
    TimK

    AI has been hyped forever, I see it as six decades of parlor tricks. AVs (which rely on AI and machine leaning) are just the latest pipe dream of futurists. Take away the controlled environments, the safety drivers, add a dose of liability, and the awful truth comes into view. It,just.doesn’t.work.

  • avatar
    SoCalMikester

    3am, I40 eastbound. car gets in front of self driving truck, slows all the way down. people in car behind pop out with bolt cutters, opens rollup truck door. PROFIT!

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    The final arbiter in AV claims will be the legal industry.

  • avatar
    JoeBrick

    I can’t wait for autonomous vehicles. I also enjoy watching figure-eight racing and the demolition derby cars.

    • 0 avatar
      pragmatic

      Once there popular I won’t have to wait for a break in traffic to get on the main road just pull out and make my own space (assuming the AV are marked as such).

      • 0 avatar
        SCE to AUX

        Excellent point. The gamesmanship will be spectacular.

        Then the lawyers will have to sort out what an AV is actually capable of, and why it isn’t quicker than a human.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    You mean the people with the most to gain are overhyping their technology and buying influence with our elected “leaders” to ensure the overhyped tech gets adopted? Boy I am shocked. SHOCKED I say.

  • avatar
    Snooder

    I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again.

    Hyping AV tech as a safety feature was dumb and self defeating from the start. It is NOT safer and never will be.

    But, it doesnt NEED to be. Nobody buys Cruise Control because its “safe”. They buy it because its convenient and makes boring highways miles less shitty.

    That’s what people should be touting. Cars that park themselves. A slightly less dull commute. Automatic braking. Turn signals that kick on when your off ramp is coming up. Maybe the ability to have your car pull up from the parking lot so you dont have to run out into the rain. Etc, etc. Just incremental improvements in the driving experience.


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