Uber ends Arizona driverless car trials after fatal crash

Chris Davies - May 23, 2018, 2:46 pm CDT
Uber ends Arizona driverless car trials after fatal crash

Uber is shutting down its autonomous vehicle project in Arizona, opting to cease operations in the state altogether in the aftermath of a fatal collision in March. The company had previously frozen all public testing of its self-driving cars in the state, after one of the vehicles struck a pedestrian in Tempe, AZ.

The investigation into that crash is still ongoing. Video released by the local police force, sourced from cameras mounted on the autonomous Volvo SUV that had been modified with Uber’s self-driving hardware, showed the safety driver only partially paying attention to the road. During the time of the crash, the Uber’s systems were operating the vehicle.

Although Arizona has evolved its driverless program rules so that companies engaged in public trials can apply to remove the safety driver altogether, Uber had been continuing to put a human operator in the driver’s seat of its cars. In theory, that person is poised to take over the controls should the vehicle encounter issues its programming is unprepared to handle. However the safety driver present at the time of the crash, Rafaela Vasquez, did not step in.

Instead, the car struck pedestrian Elaine Herzberg after she stepped out into the road. Leaks from within Uber have since suggested that the company’s engineers had adjusted the car’s tolerance for unexpected objects in the roadway, in the hope of avoiding “false-positive” identifications. Those incidences – where something like trash or leaves are wrongly identified as dangers that the car must avoid – can lead to jerky driving, as the vehicle is overly cautious.

Sources at the company, though, suggest the adjustments may have gone too far. Indeed it was reported that the car’s settings might have left it assuming it could safely drive through Herzberg, rather than needing to brake or swerve to avoid her.

Uber had halted all testing of its autonomous fleet in different US states in the aftermath of the crash, though confirmed today it did not intend to restart it in Arizona. Instead, it will cease operations there, making almost 300 employees redundant the Washington Post reports, most of whom are safety drivers. Its regular ride-sharing service will continue in the state, however.

“We’re committed to self-driving technology and look forward to returning to public roads in the coming months,” Uber said in a statement. “In the meantime, we remain focused on our top-to-bottom safety review, having brought on former NTSB Chair Christopher Hart to advise us on our overall safety culture.”

Instead, Uber plans to resume autonomous trials in Pittsburgh and San Francisco. That will bring operations closer to its hardware and software teams; the company has engineering hubs in both locations. Testing is expected to begin again this summer.

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