An Uber self-driving car hit and killed a woman crossing the street in Arizona on 19 March, marking the first fatality involving an autonomous vehicle.
Uber shut down its self-driving car operation two months later. This was a blow to the technology which was expected to transform transportation.
It now appears that the event could have been prevented. According to a report by The Information (paywall), just five days before the fatal incident on 13 March, Robbie Miller, a manager in the company’s autonomous vehicle unit had sent a warning to Uber’s top executives saying that the software which ran the cars was dangerous.
Many safety incidents had occurred in the months before the fatal collision, wrote Miller in an 890-word email to Eric Meyhofer, the head of Uber’s autonomous vehicle unit, Jon Thomason, VP of software, and five other executives and lawyers, saying that Uber needed to “work on establishing a culture rooted in safety.”
Miller has previously worked in positions at self-driving programs at Google and Otto.
He went on to complain in his e-mail that cars had been in accidents routinely; the accidents were due to the poor behaviour of the operator; a car was damaged almost every day in the month of February this year, and the company’s fleet was “hitting things every 15,000 miles.”
Robbie Miller in the same e-mail provided a list of suggestions which, in his opinion, would help reduce the accidents. These suggestions included — reducing the size of Uber’s fleet of self-driving cars by 85 percent and have more than one backup driver in each prototype of the car.
The e-mail was not responded to promptly and it could be now said that acting on it immediately would have prevented the accident. But, could it?
Looking at the time frame of 5 days from the sending of the email to the day of the accident, it’s quite unlikely. Reviewing the suggestions themselves would have taken time, forget implementing them. This is not to say that Miller couldn’t have prevented it from happening, but to say that he saw it coming and alerted the company.
The report by The Information does say that Miller was assured by the company that his suggestions would be discussed. In fact, they were, much after the accident, however.
Hitting the miles
According to a speculation made by the publication, the emphasis on the number of miles driven an indicator for how advanced Uber’s software was getting, could be the leading cause of such accidents. Boasting the number of miles has been a standard competition among such outfits — Uber had announced that its self-driving cars had already driven 2 million miles.
After shutting down operations voluntarily, the company did resume testing, but in smaller numbers. This time, the cars would not operate at night or in wet weather, and would not exceed speeds of 25 miles per hour. Another condition is that two employees would sit in the front seats.
Resuming an autonomous driving program remains crucial for the company — but it is hopefully doing so with good caution.
* Lead image used for representational purposes only.