Why the crash of a driverless Uber car could have been avoided

Why the crash of a driverless Uber car could have been avoided
Photo Credit: Shah Junaid/VCCircle
26 Mar, 2018

Last week, a woman was killed  in a US city after being hit by a self-driving car operated by ride-hailing giant Uber.

The incident put the spotlight on the safety of autonomous vehicle technology and has made automakers and regulators sit up. As investigations continue, a question that persists is whether the accident could have been avoided. Also, was Uber’s self-driving technology at fault?

Ritukar Vijay, head of technology and strategy at autonomous car startup Hi-Tech Robotic Systemz Ltd, analysed video footage of the accident and feels it could have been easily averted. 

“In [the] actual scenario, the sensors on the autonomous Uber [vehicle] should not have missed the pedestrian on the road, and [could have] mitigated the collision by applying the brakes or changing the route instantly,” he said.

If the autonomous software had a glitch, the safety driver should have taken control of the car, he said. In this case, an Uber employee was present in the front seat of the car when the unfortunate incident occurred.

Vijay, whose firm recently signed a deal with Daimler India Commercial Vehicles Pvt. Ltd to deliver its patented assistive driving system Novus Aware, said it used the algorithm of its driverless cars to analyse the accident footage. According to their analysis, the pedestrian had crossed the road 1.1 seconds before the accident. Uber’s system hadn’t identified her at all, Vijay said.

“Since the vehicle was moving at a speed of 40 mph and didn't slow down before the hit, the distance determined before the collision is around 18.33 metres. This is a decent time frame and distance for the software safety to kick in or at least gives some time for the safety driver to apply [the] brakes or steer away to prevent [an] accident,” he explained.

Further analysis by the startup reveals that the safety driver was inattentive for more than five seconds before the vehicle hit the victim.

According to news portal Bloomberg, which cited analysts who reviewed the video, the accident could have easily been avoided if Uber’s safety driver had paid more attention. Other experts raised doubts about the car’s technology, stating that the LiDAR tech should have detected the victim, Bloomberg reported.

In the aftermath of the accident, Uber said that it was working with the police in the ongoing investigation

Vijay said that in 2016, a similar accident occurred involving Tesla’s Model S, where the autonomous vehicle ran into a truck, killing the driver of the car.

On Saturday, John Krafcik, the chief executive of Alphabet Inc.’s self-driving arm Waymo, was quoted as saying that his company’s autonomous car software could have averted the accident.

“We're very confident that our car could have handled that situation. It's what we have designed this system to do in situations just like that,” business magazine Forbes quoted Krafcik as saying at a dealers conference in the US.

Uber and Waymo have a troubled past. Last month, Uber reached a $245 million settlement with Waymo to settle a legal dispute over trade secrets.