On Thursday, March 15, Reuters carried the story that Uber was sitting down with Toyota to discuss purchasing and using the Internet taxi company’s self-driving system in the Japanese automaker’s vehicles. The article went on to say that Uber’s newest CEO had held talks with Toyota executives previously in the U. S.
Just four days later a new 2018 Cadillac CT6 equipped with GM’s Super Cruise self-driving equipment was delivered for my Fox Four review that coming Friday. And just as it arrived at my home, the news broke that the night before in Tempe, a self-driving Uber XC90 had failed to see, or to stop before running over and killing, a 49-year-old woman crossing Mill Avenuearound 10:00 p.m.
The media would waste little time letting everyone know that the Uber test driver was a former Arizona felon, while the victim was a beloved local homeless woman, Elaine Herzberg, known as Ms. Elle to her fellow transients. Deeper in the story one of Elaine’s friends, who once took her in to help her get off the streets, had become homeless himself. His occupation before he lost everything? Uber driver.
But this story of the total failure of the primary Lidar system in this particular Uber self-driving car, which should easily have seen Ms. Herzberg and stopped that vehiclebefore it hit her — didn’t start on Mill Avenue in Tempe, Ariz., a week ago Sunday. No, this is a continuation of deceit and obfuscation, and of somedefectiveself-driving cars that should have never been allowed on public streets for their beta-testing. That’s right, these are the Uber cars banished from Californiain December of 2016. It’s amazing how quickly the media forgot that important part of this story.
Forgotten now, but covered widely when it happened, were the stories of taxi drivers, and just good Samaritans with video cameras in their phones as Uber’s self-drivingVolvo test fleet took to the streets of San Francisco 15 months ago. Almost immediately videos showed those cars were blowing through red lights, nearly causing several collisions, the California Department of Motor Vehicles wrote to the Internet taxi company to remind them that legally testingself-driving cars on city streets required both permission and permits. That warning carried this line: “It is essential that Uber take appropriate measures to ensure safety of the public.”
Uber replied that it “didn’t need no stinkin’ permits,” to misquote a line from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, because it had test drivers in those vehicles and therefore they were legally covered. In fact, Uber immediately said that the two cars reported as running red lights were in fact “under the drivers’ control” at the time, and therefore itsself-driving system had not failed —humans had. Uber even doubled down, ironically claiming that this is exactly why it’s working so hard to bring the world self-driving cars:To prevent mere mortals from running red lights and putting others in danger. Uber then suspended both drivers, as if that validated its official and intentional misstatement of facts.
When California wouldn’t back down on its demand that Uber immediately suspend testing, at least until after it got permits, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey rolled out the welcome mat and told Uber itwas more than welcome in his state to test its cars all it wanted. He even wrote, “While California puts the brakes on innovation and change with more bureaucracy and more regulation, Arizona is paving the way for new technology and new businesses.” And on December 22, 2016, Recode magazine and others showed Uber’s self-driving car fleet being trucked out of the state toward Phoenix. Just the day before, California had pulled those test cars’ registrations to ensure that they could not be driven at all until Uber followed the rules.
Within two months the New York Times reported that Uber’s two missed red lights in San Francisco had in fact been at least six instances of red light running, and an even bigger problem: Uber’s self-driving cars were having a horrendous time dealing with and navigating bike lanes in the city. That’s right, from day one of the negative reporting on Uber, the company was spring-loaded to mislead the publicaboutits problems whiletelling California to go pound sand.
Oh, and the Timespointed out again that human drivers were not the ones who ran the red lights. Their self-driving cars did that on their own.
While we may have missed the story, I certainly can’t find any quotes from Doug Ducey on whether he feels any personal blame for Ms. Herzberg’s death after he invited Uber’s self-driving cars into his state with the promise of no safety rules ever.(Arizona doesn’t even require a safety driver be on board) Although a week later he finally suspended Uber’s rights to continue testing. But it does seem that some Arizona officials rushedto defend Uber in the wake of this fatality: Within hours, Tempe police chief Sylvia Moir told the San Francisco Chroniclethat Ms. Herzberg had come out of the shadows and abruptly darted across a dark street that night,adding that she and not the Uber car was at fault. (To be fair, Ms. Herzberg was jaywalking; often they are the ones held responsible for accidents, and not a passing driver.)
Then, as if to validate her position that the Uber test driver could not have stopped in time (apparently ignoring that Uber’s self-driving system had been piloting the car), Chief Moir released both the dash cam video and that of the interior camera taping the driver. Sure enough that video, as troubling as it was to watch, showed an extremely dark night and even darker highway until 1.4 seconds before the collision. And even then,the first frame of Ms. Herzberg standing in the road shows only the Uber’s headlights reflecting off her white tennis shoes. Anyone watching that video would certainly feel sorry for what appears to have been an unavoidable fatality.
Except maybe those who noticed that, in the upper part of the video frame, one can see multiple huge, bright street lights that should have illuminated the entire divided highway. Also, from the moment of Ms. Herzberg’s coming into view until the collision, or 1.4 seconds, she moves maybe a foot. So,she doesn’t appear to be“abruptly”moving across the road, as the police chief said.
It gets better.Many individuals who live in Tempe and drive that road at night know that the extreme darkness in the video that Uber and the police departmentreleased is not the reality of the situation. Many grabbed their video cams and drove on Mill Avenue at night, in the exact location of the accident, to show everyone that that’s a fairly well-lit stretch of divided road. Then they posted those videos to YouTube.
Meanwhile, Timothy Lee wrote an article for ARSTechnica.com, in which he also posted not only the videos disproving Uber and Moir’s position that it would have been impossible to see Ms. Herzberg in the dark, but also the headlight ratings for a Volvo XC90, which should have illuminated Ms. Herzberg for at least twice as long as the video portrayed. And that’s not with the high beams on.
Of course, the worst part is that none of this mattered. So what if it was a truly dark road, and full of shadows?That vehicle’s Lidar systems should have been able to pick up Ms. Herzberg crossing the road while pushing her bike, easily. Which means, the car should have stopped before hitting Ms. Herzberg even if it was pitch black and the car’s headlights were out. At least, that’s what every automotive expert covering self-driving cars in America would say of this accident.
Months earlier someone inside Uber’s test group sent the New York Times100 pages of internal information about the problems they had encountered in their long-term testing. It seems that engineers at Waymo, Google’s competing self-driving system, had to intervene and take over control of their self-driving cars only once every 5,600 miles or so; Uber’s drivers had to seize control of their vehicles once every 13 miles. That frequency of equipment failure is unbelievable for vehicles that have been tested on highways for well over a year.
Uber’s new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, was due in Phoenix for a PR stunt in April.He planned to take a ride in one of the company’s vehicles and then decree to all that “Milestone 1: Confidence [in this technology]”had been reached. We’ll assume that that particular CEO PR Hype road trip has been postponed.
So, these are the cars that ran red lights all week long in San Francisco, and nearly caused numerous wrecks, (not to mention being incapable of dealing with bicyclists in bike lanes)whereupon Uber blamed the drivers for those problems and suspended them. When California said enough is enough, Arizona said come on over and do whatever you want here. When a woman was killed, Tempe’s police chiefsaid she had abruptly darted out of the shadows and crossed the street in darkness and released the Uber video backing up that statement. But she couldn’t stop her own citizens from driving that exact street at night and posting their own videos, showing that the scenario she posited was not accurate.
Nor can anyone gainsaywhat experts in this field point out:that the primary job of a self-driving car is to prevent exactly this type of accident. And the Uber car failed its primary job in a spectacular fashion,with a former felon not monitoring the vehicle correctly as it tragically killed a homeless woman on the street.
No word on whether the Toyota-Uber negotiations to put Uber’s self-driving equipment into Toyotas are still happening.
On Thursday I took that Cadillac CT6 out for a test drive on Interstate 20 through Arlington and over to Dallas County. There is a precision to the GM self-driving gear that I had not found in other manufacturers’ autonomous systems. I managed around 10 – 15 miles before it warned me that I needed to resume control of the vehicle,but I realized GM’s Super Cruise is not really lightweight:It wanted me to take over the driving only because the in-dash camera noticed my eyes were not focused properly on the road in front of me. Friday morning, I turned on the self-driving system around Green Oaks at Interstate 30 and headed to Channel Four in downtown Dallas. This time I never took my eyes off the road in front of me. I never touched the steering wheel, never had to put my foot on the pedals until I took my exit in downtown Dallas. The Cadillac CT6 had successfully navigated the entire 37-mile distance between the two cities, and only once did I think I might have to take over the controls. That’s when someone in the far left lane suddenly flew across four lanes of traffic to make the Hampton Road South exit. How in the world he didn’t hit someone else is beyond me, but the Cadillac caught his movement and slowed down to avoidgetting hit.
Saturday morning I used the system again going to the radio station. But that day it forced me to handle the driving through the construction site at highway 360, something it had done without my assistance the day before. Coming back to Fort Worth, it just didn’t like that afternoon’s stop-and-go traffic at all.
The entire time I was thinking, would this car stop if a woman ran into the highway pushing her bicycle? I can’t answer that question, but it’s doubtful. But I do know the Cadillac forces you to watch the road in front of you, or else all sorts of warning lights and sounds remind you that you’re supposed to be in charge of things.
If the Uber carhad had that type of warning system installed, Ms. Herzberg probably would still be with us today. Turns out that it did, but Uber disconnected the Volvo’s internal warning systems for their testing. Leaving Governor Ducey clueless as to why California had regulations in place to prevent this type of tragedy.
Note from Ed: This is an ongoing investigation and will be interesting to see the final report and how it will affect the testing of self-driving cars in the future.
© Ed Wallace 2018 Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org