[By Kristen Lee]
More sources are coming forward with information about Uber’s self-driving technology that resulted in a fatal crash, Volkswagen has some electrified revelations and a ratified Ford contract with the UAW. All this and more in The Morning Shift for Monday, Nov. 18, 2019.
1st Gear: New Questions For Uber Over Self-Driving Software
Earlier this month, we reported Uber’s self-driving cars made it through 37 crashes before finally fatally striking a pedestrian in Arizona in March 2018. The National Transportation Safety Board will meet tomorrow to decide the probable cause of the crash, but some new insight has emerged.
Uber officials apparently removed a “key fail-safe” from the test cars months before one of them hit and killed Elaine Herzberg in Arizona, according to Automotive News, citing two unnamed sources with “firsthand knowledge” of Uber’s self-driving system.
From the story:
The fail-safe, an internally developed feature called Reflex, was shelved because some members of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, or ATG, thought it triggered too many braking events at a time when the program was under pressure to show progress in developing software, said the sources, who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak on the matter.
Reflex provided an independent cross-check on the main self-driving systems by using short-range radar signals to sense imminent hazards directly in the path of vehicles. The sources, who had roles within ATG, believe that had it been enabled in Uber’s Volvo XC90 fleet, Reflex would have mitigated the collision that killed Elaine Herzberg — and possibly prevented it.
“It was designed to prevent exactly this sort of crash,” one source said.
Automotive News notes Reflex “has not been disclosed publicly.” It is also not referenced in any of the 43 documents and 439 pages of information the NTSB put on in its public docket regarding the fatal crash.
A third anonymous source apparently talked to the outlet “because they were concerned that investigators did not yet have a comprehensive picture of Uber’s safety capabilities and culture. Further, they worried that lessons learned from the crash have gone unheeded.”
Together, the three sources said Uber allegedly wanted to keep up with its rival, Waymo, which makes frequent announcements about how many cars it has in its fleet and how many miles they drive:
Even though many in ATG found little value in pursuing a similar course, leaders deemed it necessary to put a large number of cars on the road because those were metrics they believed investors valued.
When Uber named Dara Khosrowshahi CEO in August 2017, pressure to show progress intensified — not because pressure was directly applied by the CEO. In meetings before and after the crash, two of the sources say, Khosrowshahi showed tepid enthusiasm for Uber’s self-driving ambitions. In turn, ATG leaders ramped up efforts to show progress.
That included eliminating Reflex, because it caused frequent braking events that could make rides uncomfortable or jarring.
In short, it sounds like Uber wanted to show progress rather than, you know, actually make progress.
The Automotive News story is quite good, and you can read the rest of it here.
Whatever comes out of that NTSB meeting tomorrow will probably be very, very bad for Uber’s self-driving division.