Putting it simply, the autonomous software is designed in a way to detect the objects around the vehicle and operators tweak its sensitivity to make sure it responds only to genuine threats like solid objects. However, in the Uber crash, the software, it appears, has been tweaked too much to ignore even the bicyclist Elaine Herzberg who passed in front of the car.
According to The Information, Uber found that the system was programmed to ignore objects that it should have considered, and this led to the fatal crash. Even though the autonomous vehicle detected Herzberg, she was categorized as a false positive.
Maybe the car’s more complex logics were at fault that hindered its decision-making capacity such as which objects to pay attention to and how to respond. The software is fed with programs like not needing to slow down for a parked bike at the side of the road, but one passing in the front of the car should be responded immediately. Possibly this information was wrongly fed into the car.
The false positive has possibly been programmed into the autonomous vehicles to make the passengers’ ride smoother. However, in this case it took one life. It might sound like a normal error in the software – a bug. But, considering the autonomous vehicles are being touted as the future, such bugs could prove very costly for the auto industry.
Reportedly, the Uber vehicle had a human driver behind the wheel, but he possibly took his eyes off the road briefly. Even though Uber has settled with the family of the victim, the Arizona government has banned the testing until the matter is resolved. Other automakers have also put their testing on hold until the Uber crash incident is settled.
The ride-hailing company is looking into the matter along with the National Transportation Safety Board.
“Our review is looking at everything from the safety of our system to our training processes for vehicle operators, and we hope to have more to say soon,” the company said in a statement.
Talking of the fatal crash, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi stated that they are not sure what could have gone wrong at this point in time. Speaking to CBS News, he said that the NTSB should move ahead with the investigation and do their job of finding out who was at fault.
On their end, Khosrowshahi said he is taking a top to bottom audit of the procedures, training, software, hardware and the practices at Uber to make sure that the next time their cars are on the road, they are more responsible and safe.
Following the Uber crash, there were reports that Uber’s self-driving program was always risky. According to a report from the New York Times, the company reportedly reduced the number of “safety drivers” from two to one. This explains why there was only a single driver in the car that killed Herzberg. Further, Reuters in its late March report noted that Uber had reduced the number of LIDAR sensors in its cars. It must be noted that LIDAR is the most important hardware for the self-driving vehicles.
Despite such reports, the government in Arizona did not feel the need to look into the matter while Uber manipulated the safety norms. The emails obtained by the Guardian a few weeks after the crash suggested a friendly relationship between Uber and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, who could have allowed Uber to start testing the cars earlier than expected.
Ever since the Uber crash, some of Uber’s partners also came out with their side of the story. Nvidia, the supplier of the GPU to Uber’s autonomous project, said the fault might be with the Uber software. Also, LIDAR supplier to Uber, Velodyne, stated that its technology would not have been affected by the nighttime conditions.
Separately, the Uber CEO also talked about the model of the ride-hailing company’s flying car and the potential designs for the sky ports. Speaking to CBS News, Khosrowshahi stated that his company is determined to make air taxis a more “affordable” option for transportation.
“Just [as] the cities went vertical with skyscrapers for businesses and skyscrapers for places that people live, we think cities are going to go vertical in terms of transportation and we want to make that a reality. So we think that you can actually build these vehicles that are going to carry four people,” he said.