National Transportation Safety Board faults vehicle operator, self-driving car for fatal crash

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Finance 3 weeks ago

The probable cause of the fatal crash involving one of Uber’s self-driving cars was the vehicle operator’s lack of attention, the National Transportation Safety Board determined.

But inadequate focus on safety and risk mitigation at Uber’s Strip District-based Advanced Technologies Group and inadequate regulations for autonomous vehicle testing at the state and federal level were contributing factors, the NTSB announced at a meeting in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to discuss findings from an investigation of the March 2018 crash in Tempe, Ariz.

Though the vehicle operator was at fault, NTSB members pointed out that her inaction was indicative of a larger problem that is just catching up to the self-driving car industry.

Automation complacency — which has been looked at in fields such as robotics and medical technology — in this case refers to the vehicle operator’s inability to maintain an adequate level of attention to the road and the vehicle if intervention is suddenly needed.

Uber’s automated driving system relies heavily on the vehicle operator taking over if a collision appears imminent. 

For example, at the time of the crash, the software allowed the car to brake only to a certain level and the car could not override that feature even if it is the only way to prevent a crash. Uber expected the vehicle operator to take control from the automated driving system before it reached that point.

The NTSB also found that the self-driving car involved in the fatal crash could not recognize jaywalkers, so it was not able to classify and predict the pedestrian’s path in order to avoid the crash in Tempe.

And when operating in autonomous mode, the car turned off any built-in safety features from the car manufacturer, like pedestrian detection. Uber has since updated its software.

At the time of the crash, Uber had changed its testing policy to require only one vehicle operator in the car at a time, instead of two used in the past. The company has since reinstated the rule that two people must be in the autonomous vehicle.

Additionally, the California company has since changed its schedule to require vehicle operators take a break every two hours rather than every four and a half hours.

The actions of the vehicle operator and the autonomous vehicle technology were “symptoms of a deeper problem,” NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said.

“This crash was not only about Uber ATG test drive in Arizona,” he said. “This crash was about testing the development of automated driving systems on public roads. Its lessons should be studied by any company testing in any state.”

“If your company tests automated driving systems on public roads, this crash was about you,” Mr Sumwalt said. “If you use roads where automated driving systems are being tested, this crash was about you. If your work touches on automated driving systems at the federal or state level of government, this crash was about you.”

In Pittsburgh, Uber ATG has been testing self-driving cars since 2016. The company briefly removed the vehicles from roads following the crash in Arizona. Uber resumed testing in Pittsburgh last December but no longer picks up passengers in its self-driving cars.

Since the crash, Pennsylvania has set up an application process and established a new task force for reviewing autonomous vehicle companies testing. Though the application is not required, all of the companies with self-driving cars on the road in Pittsburgh have applied and received permits from the state.

Twenty-nine other states also have some type of regulations for autonomous vehicle companies, based on information from the NTSB, but requirements and available information varies widely.

On the federal level, developers of self-driving technology are not required to submit paperwork or applications. The National Highway Safety Traffic Safety Administration encourages companies to submit voluntary self-assessments, but does not require it and does not review or offer feedback from the assessments.

Sixteen companies have submitted self-assessments, said Ensar Becic, an investigator with NTSB who was answering questions at Tuesday’s meeting. The quality of those 16 differs, he said, with some companies offering detailed reports and others submitting something that reads like a “marketing brochure.”

The NTSB recommended making these self-assessments mandatory as well as implementing mandatory reporting for state governments.

The lack of oversight is a “major failing on the federal government's part and the state of Arizona ... for failing to regulate these operations,” said board member Jennifer Homendy.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation will hold a meeting Wednesday morning to discuss perspectives on autonomous vehicles.

Lauren Rosenblatt:, 412-263-1565

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