A manager at Uber warned bosses at the company of the risks associated with self-driving cars just days before a cyclist was killed when she was hit by an autonomous vehicle the company was testing as she crossed the road in Arizona.
Elaine Herzberg, aged 49, was wheeling her bike across a street in Tempe on the evening of 18 March when she the vehicle struck her, causing fatal injuries. The back-up driver in the Uber vehicle, Rafaela Vasquez, was reported to have been watching an episode of The Voice on her phone.
According to The Information, an Uber manager involved in its autonomous vehicle unit, which is using technology to develop so-called ‘robotaxis’, warned the company’s senior executives in an email of risks inherent in the programme.
Those included faults in the software used to self-drive the Volvo SUV used in the trial, as well as criticism of the human back-up drivers including the lack of adequate training given to them and lack of focus some had on their jobs.
The manager, Robbie Miller, who left Uber shortly afterwards, outlined a number of specific incidents in his email and said: “The cars are routinely in accidents resulting in damage.
“This is usually the result of poor behavior of the operator or the AV technology. A car was damaged nearly every other day in February. We shouldn’t be hitting things every 15,000 miles. Repeated infractions for poor driving rarely results in termination. Several of the drivers appear to not have been properly vetted or trained.”
Prior to joining Uber, Miller had worked for Google’s self-driving car operation, now known as Waymo, and which just last week introduced the world’s first robotaxi service in – coincidentally – Arizona. Uber itself shelved plans to roll out a similar service in the state after Ms Herzberg’s death.
He claimed in the email that the response to concerns over safety would have been very different at his previous employer, writing: “At Waymo I would not have been surprised if the entire fleet was immediately grounded for weeks or longer if a vehicle exhibited the same behavior.”
The Information said that a number of past and present Uber employees had vouched for the accuracy of what Miller said in his email, and it has previously speculated that improper tuning of safety software may have contributed to the crash.
In a statement, Uber – which has since suspended on-road testing of autonomous vehicles and has shifted its testing from Arizona to Pennsylvania – told The Information: “Right now the entire team is focused on safely and responsibly returning to the road in self-driving mode. We have every confidence in the work that the team is doing to get us there.
“Our team remains committed to implementing key safety improvements, and we intend to resume on-the-road self-driving testing only when these improvements have been implemented and we have received authorization from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.”
While Miller did not receive a direct response to his email before leaving Uber, he was reportedly told that the situation would be reviewed and, according to The Information, some of the issues he raised were incorporated in a company review compiled after the fatal crash.
In 2016, we reported how Uber was aware of a flaw in the way its autonomous vehicles crossed bike lanes prior to a trial being launched in San Francisco.
The company said that it had instructed back-up drivers to resume control when they approached intersections with bike lanes.
But San Francisco Bicycle Coalition spokesman Chris Cassidy said: “The fact that they know there’s a dangerous flaw in the technology and persisted in a surprise launch shows a reckless disregard for the safety of people in our streets.”
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.