[By LAUREN ROSENBLATT]
After the first rush of excitement, Pittsburghers got pretty comfortable with self-driving cars tooling around town, picking up Uber riders and causing tourists to gawk at the big, chunky thing spinning on top of the vehicles.
But the situation may have been more dangerous than it appeared, even if no one assumed it was more than an interesting experiment that still had a long way to go.
A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board released last week found there was more wrong than a distracted vehicle operator when a pedestrian was struck and killed in March 2018 in Tempe, Ariz. The software was not equipped to handle some situations it would likely encounter — like a person jaywalking.
In other words, the car could not comprehend that a human could cross the street at a place other than a designated crosswalk — a situation especially popular among Pittsburghers.
With self-driving cars on Pittsburgh’s roads since 2016, the situation in Arizona could have easily played out the same way here.
“The bottom line when it comes to the Uber test vehicle is the system itself was not programmed with safety first and foremost,” said William Wallace, manager of safety policy at Consumer Reports.
“It was programmed to hand things off to the backup driver, and that backup driver was in no position to prevent a crash,” Mr. Wallace said. “Nobody is in a position to prevent a crash if they are handed the wheel with only seconds to spare.”
What should happen next will be the topic of discussion Tuesday at an NTSB meeting to discuss the preliminary report and issue suggestions for how Uber should move forward.
The industry and regulators didn’t wait for the official report to start taking action.
Immediately following the crash, Uber took a step back.
For a while, the company took all of its self-driving cars off the roads in Pittsburgh, Tempe, San Francisco and Toronto. It updated its software to fill in gaps that left the car unable to react to some situations, updated its training for vehicle operators and overhauled its workplace culture to focus more on safety.
“We regret the March 2018 crash involving one of our self-driving vehicles that took Elaine Herzberg’s life,” said Sarah Abboud, communications manager for Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, based in the Strip District. “In the wake of this tragedy, the team at Uber ATG has adopted critical program improvements to further prioritize safety.”
Ms. Abboud said the company looked forward to hearing suggestions from the NTSB and could not comment further since the investigation is still ongoing.
Uber’s autonomous vehicles returned to Pittsburgh’s roads in December. The cars are driving themselves, but the company no longer picks up passengers from its ride-hailing service in self-driving cars.
The city remained a center for autonomous vehicle technology development — and that remained a source of pride for Pittsburgh residents.
“It’s a huge banner of success for the community that this very advanced, cutting edge, ‘the world is watching,’ is happening right here in our backyard,” said RoadBotics President Benjamin Schmidt.
East Liberty-based RoadBotics uses technology to help governments better understand and improve infrastructure. Right now, cities are looking at things like fixing potholes and repainting lane markers to make it safer for drivers and autonomous vehicles.
“It’s all these sorts of things that people need to navigate effectively, but then it just makes it harder for machines and algorithms to navigate the same space,” Mr. Schmidt said. “We’re looking at the future right now.”
Navigating the autonomous space
The fatal self-driving car crash caused Pittsburgh government officials and leaders in the autonomous vehicle industry to pause, too.
The focus needed to be on safety and reminding everybody that these vehicles were still not fully autonomous, said Karina Ricks, director of the city’s Mobility and Infrastructure Department.
“At all speeds, on all streets, at all times, you need to have two people in that vehicle,” Ms. Ricks said, referring to an executive order from Mayor Bill Peduto updating policies for vehicle operators in self-driving cars. “[Self-driving cars] have increasing levels of autonomy, they have increasing functionality, but they still do rely very much on the driver and that just needs to be recognized.”
Pittsburgh residents fall on both sides of the debate over whether self-driving vehicles are the transportation of the future. Ms. Ricks has heard from some people who worry about the negative impact on the workforce and others who say they trust self-driving cars more because the cars don’t speed or tailgate.
For her part, Ms. Ricks hopes self-driving cars will make roads more accessible for everyone. For example, an autonomous car could provide nonemergency medical services to someone who cannot drive themselves.
“We don’t just want to facilitate technology that continues with us having low occupancy vehicles clogging our streets … but I would like to have technology that makes vehicles that do operate on our city streets infinitely more safe,” she said.
Ms. Ricks said Uber and other autonomous vehicle companies have been transparent when working with the city as it updated its requirements. She did not expect immediate changes to the city’s protocols as a result of the NTSB findings.
The crash in Arizona was a result of several factors, according to NTSB documents. The systems all worked as they should, but they were not set up as they should have been.
In order to avoid collisions, the software was designed to have the car classify an object, determine its trajectory and decide how it should adjust its own path in response.
But if the car changed its classification of the object, it lost all past predictions about where that object would go and how the car should react.
In the Tempe crash, the car reclassified the pedestrian crossing the street at least seven times in the 10 seconds leading up to the crash.
Uber has since changed its software so the car can maintain a history of the object even as it reclassifies it, to be sure that the car always knows the object’s predicted trajectory.
“The whole idea is that humans can anticipate,” said Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing at Edmunds, a website that reviews cars. “They can see four or five or six cars ahead, so when you’re on a freeway and someone brakes and there’s an accordion-style backup, humans can see that and a lot of cars can’t.
He said cars would need vehicle-to-vehicle communication to get that information.
“These are all difficult problems for sensors to do. Turns out human beings are pretty darn capable if they’re awake and alert.”
Ready to buy
The market for self-driving cars is still there, Mr. Edmunds said, but it is ahead of the technology.
People are still drawn to the futuristic idea of driving only when they want to, as well as to the promises of accessibility and decreased deaths from car accidents.
Aspects of self-driving tech are already finding their way into commercial vehicles with features like automatic braking and lane centering. Tesla has gone so far as to offer Autopilot, which can theoretically drive the car — and get itself from a parking lot to its waiting driver.
The electric car company has come under scrutiny for billing the technology as mostly self-driving when it still requires a human driver on most parts of the road. Tesla says it never intended for drivers using Autopilot to take their hands off the wheel.
For now, Tesla’s Autopilot is the closest thing a passenger can get to experiencing a self-driving car. Uber would like to get passengers back into its autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh, but the company could not say when.
Mr. Schmidt of Roadbotics doesn’t think most people can speculate too far in the future with this type of technology. There’s still too much to predict.
“I think it’s something that everybody’s going to start struggling with,” he said. “How far and how fast do we push this?”