Video Shows Self-Driving Uber Inaction in Pedestrian Death

By Jeremy Hsu | March 21, 2018 9:57 pm
An Uber self-driving car prototype on the road. Credit: Uber

An Uber self-driving car prototype on the road. Credit: Uber

A self-driving Uber accident that killed a homeless woman represents a somber milestone in the development of self-driving car technologies. Now a video of the accident may raise more questions about why the Uber vehicle failed to react to the woman and thereby claimed the life of the first pedestrian victim in self-driving car history.

The video released by police shows two views of the accident that took place in Tempe, Arizona on the night of March 18. An outside view of the front of the car shows how Elaine Herzberg, 49, suddenly gets illuminated by the onrushing Uber SUV’s headlights as she was walking her bike across the street. Another inside view shows the Uber driver, Rafaela Vasquez, 44, appearing to look between the road and down at something inside the vehicle just before the self-driving vehicle—traveling in autonomous mode—collided with Herzberg.

Warning: The video contains scenes that many may find disturbing.

Some early statements by the Tempe Police Department seemed to generally excuse both the Uber self-driving technology and Vasquez, the backup safety driver, given the dark nighttime conditions and the fact that the victim, Herzberg, was crossing the road outside the designated intersection crosswalk. “It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode,” said Sylvia Moir, police chief in Tempe, Arizona, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them.”

But the newly released video seems likely to raise questions about why Uber’s self-driving car either failed to detect Herzberg with its sensors or attempt some braking or evasive action to avoid a collision. After all, the safety promise of self-driving cars is based on the idea that a smart, AI-driven vehicle—loaded with sensors theoretically capable of detecting objects in darkness and bad weather conditions—should be a safer and more capable driver than an ordinary human driver.

How a Self-Driving Car Killed a Person

The video shows that the fatal accident occurred while the self-driving car was traveling on a straight section of road during the night. Herzberg appeared to have been walking her bike at a normal pace across the roadway at the time the vehicle struck her.

Such conditions should made it straightforward for the self-driving Uber to detect Herzberg well before she appeared in the headlights, said Steven Shladover, a research engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, in an interview with Wired. He pointed out that Herzberg appeared to have been walking in full view of the self-driving Uber’s sensors and at a simple 90-degree angle to the direction the self-driving vehicle was traveling.

That is certain to raise questions for Uber engineers and many other experts about what exactly was going on under the hood of the self-driving vehicle. But Wired writer Aarian Marshall also draws attention to the fact that the Uber safety driver, Vazquez, did not seem ready to respond and take the wheel in the wake of the self-driving vehicle’s apparent failure to spot Herzberg. That may lead investigators to consider the training and potential limitations of the human backup drivers currently babysitting the self-driving Ubers roaming around on public roads.

In any case, friends of Herzberg reacted angrily to early police statements that seemed to deflect blame from Uber to the victim. One friend told The Guardian that the case should be considered “negligent homicide” with the government also being held responsible. Another friend declared that Uber “should be shut down for it.”

The Scene of the Accident

The area where the self-driving Uber struck Herzberg was described by the Phoenix New Times as one popular among pedestrians. The newspaper also pointed out that mid-street crossing is common in the area, in no small part because the median between the two one-way roads that Herzberg was crossing contains an apparent pedestrian walkway.

But the apparent pedestrian walkway is actually a trap, according to Eric Paul Dennis, a transportation systems analyst at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He pointed out that the brick-paved walking path across the median leads to no connecting crosswalks and actually has signs telling pedestrians not to use it. “This is beyond pedestrian-hostile design; it’s damn-near entrapment,” Dennis wrote in a Twitter message.

It’s a striking example of pedestrian infrastructure being reduced to a purely ornamental fixture for roadways primarily designed around drivers and cars. As the scene of the first pedestrian fatality in a self-driving car accident, it may also serve as a cautionary tale for cities across the United States that rush to embrace self-driving cars while neglecting public transportation or pedestrian infrastructure.

“Case-in-point: Arizona received a federal grant to address their sky-high pedestrian fatality rates,” Dennis wrote. “They used the money for public service announcements and targeted enforcement of jaywalkers.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts
  • Marion Meads

    GM’s Cruise Automation system is able to slowdown for a raccoon crossing the street. I don’t how Uber system could have missed such a bigger object!

  • Uncle Al

    … 1)The owner of record must be fined every time Windows crashes.
    … 2) If prayer worked, Bill Gates would be a kilohertz smoking crater.

  • Lord

    Light video cams only? The driver is more understandable as he likely won’t know if the system is failing until it is too late, would have to anticipate its failure, and would be limited to light.

  • Andrew Worth

    Uber’s self drive system is evidently massively inferior to the leaders:

    “In March, 2017, Uber’s performance reported that Uber self-driving cars were able to travel an average of 0.67 miles on Scottsdale Road without human intervention and an average of 2 miles without a ‘bad experience’.

    In 2016, the reported miles before intervention in California were:

    Google: 5,127.9 miles (635,868 miles driven, 124 disengagements)
    BMW: 638 miles (638 miles driven, 1 disengagements)
    Nissan: 263.3 miles (6,056 miles driven, 23 disengagements)
    Ford: 196.6 miles (590 miles driven, 3 disengagements)
    General Motors: 54.7 miles (8,156 miles driven, 149 disengagements)
    Delphi Automotive Systems: 14.9 miles (2,657.7 miles driven, 178 disengagements)
    Tesla: 2.9 miles (550 miles, 185 disengagements)
    Mercedes-Benz: 2 miles (673 miles, 336 disengagements)
    Bosch: 0.68 miles (983 miles driven, 1,448 disengagements)

    Uber was down at the bottom for self-driving cars. Uber was over a thousand times worse than Google-Waymo and 100 times worse than several other car makers.”

  • ArkansasDeb

    We’ll never know why the pedestrian chose to step in front of the car, rather than waiting for it to pass. On the other hand, we have proof on film that the driver was negligent. And probable proof that the car’s system was inadequate. People DO jaywalk, and kids and animals DO run out in front of cars. Not impressed at all with the car’s inability to scan side to side the way an alert driver would. Shut Uber down…and let the lawyers sort it out.

  • mcsandberg

    That video is very misleading. The Volvo XC90 has modern LED headlights.

  • Country Boy

    Did anyone think this would not happen sooner or later. Yes, you can obviously see that sensors that are supposed to see things that we cant should have worked and prevented this. This use of technology is new and like all technology, has flaws and limitations. On the other hand, I think anyone can see that with the circumstances of this particular accident, if that had been a regular car and driver, she would probably still been hit and killed, only it would not have made such news because those accidents happen every day.

    • Maia

      You are deflecting, as they say. Whatever else may be true, the sensors should have detected her and responded. Why didn’t they? How are we supposed to trust driverless cars unless such a question can be answered?

  • Uncle Al

    If your construct brings to mind “YouTube v=REvmhBO99I4”, you’ve got bad troubles with commercialization.

  • Viv Connell

    Why on earth does anyone need to know that the person who was killed was homeless?

    • Maia

      Good question.

  • John Lathrop

    So, a woman jay-walking at night was hit by a car. The only reason this is news is because it was a self-driving car. People are peculiar creatures; they’d much rather 1000 people get run over by human drivers than 1 person get run over by a computer driver. Self-driving cars have been well-establishes to be vastly safer than human drivers, but every time one DOES make the rare mistake, everybody loses their minds. Just like people who refuse to use cruise control because they “want to be in control” and their speed varies by 30 MPH and you have to deal with them yo-yoing in front of you, beside you, and behind you; making everybody have to deal with their arrogant ineptitude.


Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.


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