Uber autonomous vehicle fatality: Is the technology to blame?

Published: March 22, 2018

Updated: July 24, 2018

Author: Luke Jones



Ride-sharing giant Uber has been among the most proactive developers of self-driving vehicles, with cars with autonomous technology already in operation. However, a fatal incident in Phoenix, Arizona has raised questions about the viability of Uber’s driverless ambitions and put a spotlight on autonomous vehicle technology as a whole.

Authorities in the U.S. state released a video showing the moment a pedestrian was hit by a self-driving Uber SUV as she crossed a darkened street. 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was struck by the vehicle on Sunday and died from the impact. The Volvo SUV was fitted with early-stage autonomous technology.

Uber’s self-driving fleet requires a human occupant, but the backup driver was looking down and looked stunned just before the impact. The SUV’s light’s failed to illuminate Herzberg until seconds before the collision, leaving it too late for corrective measures to be undertaken.

Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle, Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir believes the SUV will not be deemed at fault for the incident. However, experts disagree and claim the Volvo’s laser and radar systems should have spotted the pedestrian.

It is worth noting that in the stages of autonomy, the SUV was low down. It was not a fully functioning self-driving vehicles. For reference, autonomous vehicles come in several classes, ranging from basic in-car abilities to full autonomy where the vehicle performs all tasks:

  • SAE Level 0 – human does everything, like current cars
  • SAE Level 1 – some in-car systems can aid the human in the operation of the vehicle
  • SAE Level 2 – the autonomous tech can complete some driving tasks, but human monitoring is needed.
  • SAE Level 3 – the system conducts some driving and monitors some of the environment, but human must be ready as backup
  • SAE Level 4 – the system can conduct driving tasks without any input from humans. However, the system only works under some conditions. This is where the current market is.
  • SAE Level 5 is when the car can perform all tasks without the need for a human driver.

While higher SAE levels are not expected for years (SAE Level 5 is over a decade away), the RAND Corporation report found that at just 10% better (Improve10) than current abilities, autonomous vehicles could save thousands of lives per year in the United States alone.

“The victim did not come out of nowhere. She’s moving on a dark road, but it’s an open road, so Lidar (laser) and radar should have detected and classified her” as a human, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor.

Smith admits the video may not be conclusive, but added “this is strongly suggestive of multiple failures of Uber and its system, its automated system, and its safety driver.”

Uber’s autonomous ambitions are vast, but are currently in testing. The company suspended all other self-driving road tests in the Phoenix area, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Toronto. A spokeswoman told Canadian Underwriter remained vague on the incident:

“The video is disturbing and heartbreaking to watch, and our thoughts continue to be with Elaine’s loved ones. Our cars remain grounded, and we’re assisting local, state and federal authorities in any way we can,” the company said in a statement.