The self-driving technology deployed in an Uber which struck and killed a woman crossing the street in Arizona recently, noted a pedestrian was on the road, but didn't stop, a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board says.
The NTSB has issued its first report on what happened on March 18, when a Volvo XC90 struck and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, who was walking her bicycle across the road at the time.
The NTSB found that the technology in place on the car had identified some sort of object in the road as much as six seconds in advance, but did nothing to prevent hitting it.
"The self-driving system software classified the pedestrian as an unknown object, as a vehicle, and then as a bicycle with varying expectations of future travel path," the NTSB said. With about 1.3 seconds before impact, the car finally decided that "emergency braking was needed to mitigate a collision."
This image from the NTSB report shows that the car identified the object as a bicycle at least 1.3 seconds before impact. (NTSB)
But because of the way the software is designed, emergency braking manoeuvres are not enabled while the car is in self-driving mode, in order to reduce what Uber calls "erratic vehicle behaviour."
"The vehicle operator is relied on to intervene and take action," the NTSB report said, but "the system is not designed to alert the operator."
The car had a safety driver in the front seat at the time, but an on-board camera and the NTSB suggest the driver was too late — attempting to grab the steering wheel "less than a second before impact and began braking less than a second after impact."
"All aspects of the self-driving system were operating normally at the time of the crash, and there were no faults or diagnostic messages," the NTSB said.
Volvo, along with the company that makes the radar and camera technology for the car, have both distanced themselves from the incident, suggesting that Uber must have manually turned off safety features that would have caused the car to stop itself in advance of a collision.
The company has also recently halted its self-driving experiment in the state in the wake of the death.
The NTSB says it is continuing to investigate the incident, adding that Thursday's report is preliminary and "by its nature does not contain probable cause."
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