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Uber’s car did not recognize pedestrian in fatal Arizona crash, report says

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a preliminary report regarding the fatal crash in Tempe, Arizona, involving an Uber self-driving car and a pedestrian pushing a bicycle. The preliminary report presents the data the NTSB has gathered since the March 18 crash. The report does not analyze the data nor does it discuss probable cause.

The modified 2017 Volvo XC90‘s computer-controlled Uber self-driving system was engaged at the time of the crash. The pedestrian struck by the Volvo was fatally injured while the human operator in the vehicle at the time of the accident was uninjured. According to the NTSB report, the pedestrian, dressed in dark clothing and pushing a bicycle, did not look in the direction of the oncoming Uber vehicle “until just before impact.” The pedestrian stepped into a section of the road with no direct illumination.

Signs at the point where the pedestrian started to cross the road warned pedestrians to use a crosswalk 360 feet distant. Toxicology test results of the pedestrian after the crash were positive for marijuana and methamphetamine. The bicycle also had no side reflectors.

The front and rear reflectors and headlamp were perpendicular to the oncoming vehicle as the pedestrian pushed the bicycle across the road. The 2017 Volvo was equipped with factory driver assistance features including automatic braking, driver alert detection, and road sign detectors. The factory assistance features are disengaged when the Uber self-driving system controls the modified Volvo.

The NTSB report stated that, according to Uber, the self-driving system is designed to rely on the vehicle operator to take action when needed, but the system does not alert the operator. The Uber self-driving system modifications on the Volvo included forward- and side-facing cameras, radars, light detection and ranging (lidar), navigation sensors, and an integrated computing and data storage unit. According to the report, the self-driving system’s radar and lidar detected the pedestrian six seconds before impact.

At that moment, the vehicle was traveling 43 mph. The vehicle’s self-driving software classified the pedestrian first as an unknown object, then as a vehicle, and finally as a bicycle. At that point, just 1.3 seconds before impact, the system registered the need for emergency braking.

The vehicle operator moved the steering wheel less than a second before and engaged the brakes less than a second after the crash. The operator told the NTSB she was monitoring the self-driving system before the crash. She also said her business and personal cell phones were in the car, but she did not use them until after the accident.

The NTSB is continuing to gather information on all aspects of the fatal crash, including the Uber self-driving system, the Volvo’s operator interface, the operator, the operator’s cell phones, the pedestrian, and the road.

On Wednesday, May 23, Uber announced it is ceasing its self-driving program in Arizona.

The company will continue its testing in existing programs in Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

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