Uber robocar hits and kills pedestrian in Arizona
It's just been reported that one of Uber's test self-driving cars struck a woman in Tempe, Arizona during the night. She died in the hospital. There are not a lot of facts at present, so any of these things might be contradicted later.
Police say 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was crossing the road (not using the crosswalk.) She was walking her bicycle and came out from the median, which is signed that pedestrians should not cross there, and should go to the main crosswalk at the light. According to the police reports, she was in the dark and could not be seen by the safety driver until he hit her. (The LIDAR should have seen her a little bit before but the car did not react, which is odd.)
What should happen very soon is that Uber will know just what happened. The vehicle was in autonomous mode. They'll have a full 3-D recreation of the incident and are almost surely working to understand why their vehicle did not stop in time. There was a safety driver in the vehicle who is supposed to use human senses and judgment to intervene and hit the brakes if they see the car not properly reacting to a cyclist, pedestrian or any other risk on the road. The driver says she did not see her.
Below is the location of the crash on Streetview.
It is unclear why the car's sensors would not have detected her even coming from the dark. Because this is a zone prohibited to pedestrians (in spite of the paved path!) Uber's car would not be expecting one to come from there, but it should have detected her the moment she put foot on the road. According to the safety driver it was almost immediately after that that she was hit.
There is the potential that because a pedestrian walking a bike is an unusual (though certainly not unknown) user of the road, their system may not be as well tested as it could be on such a profile to the LIDAR.
We also might learn -- speculation again -- that the car could have swerved around her, but did not. While several companies have shown demos of cars that swerve into another lane, this is not a well solved problem. The road in question does have more than two lanes. I Swerving is problematic because it can make things worse unless you are sure it's safe to do.
- Uber has shut down testing until it addresses the problem
- The impact was hard enough to damage the fender and grille of the SUV. It was at 40mph, and the limit is 35mph.
- There are some trees on the median which would allow the pedestrian to appear "out of the blue."
- There are some unusually placed footpaths in the area, including a big "X" in the median between the two directions. These might create an "unmarked crosswalk" under the law, though not one you would expect people to use.
- The LIDAR on top of the Uber sees just as well (in fact very slightly better) at night, so the darkness would not be an issue for the vehicle. The area is also brightly streetlit from appearances for the cameras in the car. Radar would see her bicycle but probably report it as a stationary object as it is not moving towards or away from the Uber.
According to police and friends, the the victim was a homeless person.
(However, her facebook profile does not suggest this.) This opens up a rather sad irony. Since the car had the right of way over a person crossing at a sign forbidding pedestrian crossing, Uber will probably not be liable under the traffic code. Uber could be liable in a wrongful death suit, but as you might guess, that's a lot less likely for a homeless person. Some of them have no known family, or are estranged from their families, making it less likely that a family member would sue, or could claim significant damages. As a result, the irony is that in this first death, Uber might have no financial or vehicle code liability at all.
Market and public opinion consequences are another matter. However, indications are she was in contact with family, but was recently incarcerated, so we'll see what that means.
Sensor and simulation speculation
Our best information is that she was walking the bicycle across the road, not at a crosswalk, in the night. That's a very odd thing to be doing is my first impression, but it does raise some questions.
First, while not entirely unknown, a person walking a bike across a non-crosswalk is an unusual thing compared to what you normally see. As such, Uber's perception system may not be as capable of identifying and modeling that. It is something which may not have been tested as much in simulator.
The oddest thing to me is that the impact seems to have taken place on the right side of the grille and in the right lane, even though police say the victim came from the west (left.) Debris is visible in the main right lane (not the right-turn lane which is just opening up there.) According to reports, the car did not attempt to brake. This means the woman somehow crossed 3 lanes(two left turn lanes and the main left lane) and the left front of the vehicle before being hit. That does not make sense in that the sensors should definitely have detected her well in advance of impact.
Note that with the most advanced teams, they are doing very extensive testing of all the variations they can think of for situations like this in simulator. So this should be something the systems have seen before, at least virtually.
New reports suggest the woman came from the median in the shadows and was not visible to the safety driver. The police probably will assign no fault to Uber. It is also suggested the woman may indeed be homeless. A few items in this article have been updated in light of these new facts.