Last week, we discussed the fears surrounding the return of autonomous vehicles to city streets in the wake of a woman's death in Arizona. Uber and other companies put their vehicles back on the streets in cities across the country despite the fact that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had not yet released conclusive findings regarding the 2018 pedestrian collision that killed a woman in Tempe. This led residents and advocacy groups to be wary of the vehicles, especially given the fact that other agencies found issues with the autonomous vehicle software. The specific issue is it had trouble distinguishing between objects which can behave differently in traffic, such as bicyclists and pedestrians.
The NTSB has released the findings of its investigation into the 2018 collision. A board comprised of three NTSB members voted on the probable cause of the collision. They unanimously voted that the probable cause was the failure of the back-up safety driver to monitor the driving environment “because she was visually distracted throughout the trip by her personal cell phone.” Arizona police also investigated the collision and found that Uber was not criminally liable, despite the fact that they characterized the collision as "entirely avoidable." Law enforcement also found that the safety driver's inattentiveness was the key factor in the crash.
The NTSB found that Uber made a series of decisions that ultimately resulted in the collision. The self-driving onboard software failed to properly identify the victim as a pedestrian, did not adequately assess safety risks, and did not address “operators' automation complacency.” It also deactivated the vehicle's automatic emergency braking systems in the test vehicle and eliminated the use of immediate emergency braking, relying instead on the back-up driver to take these critical steps in the event of a possible collision.
The board also cited Arizona's insufficient oversight of autonomous vehicle testing. One of the contributing factors in the collision was the fact that the pedestrian was crossing the street at a location other than a designated crosswalk, which is an incredibly common occurrence in an urban traffic environment and absolutely should have been a behavior that the vehicles were equipped to handle before being permitted on public roadways.
According to the NTSB Chairman, “The collision was the last link of a long chain of actions and decisions made by an organization that unfortunately did not make safety the top priority.” The ride-sharing company had what the board characterized as an "ineffective safety culture.”
The NTSB called on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to require any company wishing to test self-driving vehicles to submit a safety self-assessment report and for the agency to approve the testing only if those plans include appropriate safeguards. It also urged states to do more to oversee the vehicles.