The pedestrian killed on Sunday by a self-driving Uber SUV had crossed at least one open lane of road before being hit, according to a video of the crash that raises new questions about autonomous-vehicle technology.
Forensic crash analysts who reviewed the video said a human driver could have responded more quickly to the situation, potentially saving the life of the victim, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg.
Other experts said Uber’s self-driving sensors should have detected the pedestrian as she walked a bicycle across the open road at 10 p.m., despite the dark conditions.
Herzberg’s death is the first major test of a nascent autonomous vehicle industry that has presented the technology as safer than humans who often get distracted while driving. For human driving in the U.S., there’s roughly one death every 86 million miles, while autonomous vehicles have driven no more than 15 to 20 million miles in the country so far, according to Morgan Stanley analysts.
“As an ever greater number of autonomous vehicles drive an ever greater number of miles, investors must contemplate a legal and ethical landscape that may be difficult to predict,” the analysts wrote in a research note following the Sunday collision. “The stock market is likely too aggressive on the pace of adoption.”
Zachary Moore, a senior forensic engineer at Wexco International Corp. who has reconstructed vehicle accidents and other incidents for more than a decade, analysed the video footage and concluded that a typical driver on a dry asphalt road would have perceived, reacted, and activated their brakes in time to stop about eight feet short of Herzberg.
Other experts questioned the technology. The Uber SUV’s “lidar and radar absolutely should have detected her and classified her as something other than a stationary object,” Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies self-driving cars, told Bloomberg.
Smith said the video doesn’t fully explain the incident but “strongly suggests a failure by Uber’s automated driving system and a lack of due care by Uber’s driver (as well as by the victim).”
“Uber has to explain what happened,” said Mike Ramsey, a Gartner analyst who focuses on autonomous driving technologies. “There’s only two possibilities: the sensors failed to detect her, or the decision-making software decided that this was not something to stop for.”
Uber’s self-driving system includes radar, cameras and lidar, which uses lasers to detect objects. The system is designed to provide a 360-degree virtual view of the environment surrounding the car. Ramsey said it is “mystifying” why the vehicle didn’t react given that lidar systems like the one used on Uber’s SUV have a detection range of at least 100 meters and work better at night than during the daytime.