New facts and questions on Uber robocar fatality
Update: More information in following posts, particularly impressions of serious possible errors by Uber.
As expected, yesterday's fatal accident with an Uber robocar has created a great deal of buzz and controversy. There have been many updates since I wrote yesterday's post, and I have updated the article with most of them. My biggest question, however, revolves around the police statement that the victim was crossing from the west (left side) but the debris is in the right lane, at about the place where the right turn lane is expanding away from it. I asked the police spokesman to confirm that she was going west to east and it was confirmed.
As we also saw, the right grille of the Uber vehicle is dented. The Uber was going 40mph on a 45mph road (original reports said a 35mph road.)
The big question is, it seems that the victim had to cross three and a half lanes to the point where she was hit. Two left turn lanes, the left lane of Mill St. and finally half of the right lane to where she was hit by the right side of the Volvo. As a reminder, here is the location on StreetView.
This is quite puzzling. Uber's Velodyne LIDAR should have seen her very clearly, and observed her for almost 5 seconds if she was walking, about 2.5 seconds if she was running. A bit less if she was riding the bike but the police have seen the forward cameras of the Uber and indicate she was walking. In addition, the safety driver should also have noticed her, but that's less interesting, being just an ordinary human mistake.
(I say 5 seconds because the range of the LIDAR is about 100m, and the car was going 20 metres/second. So it would not have seen her until she was on the road.)
While there are trees in the median which the victim may have emerged from, once on the road she should have been very obvious to the LIDAR, which sees slightly better in the dark than it does in the day. Cameras would also have seen her in the bright streetlights but it's easier to understand issues there.
It is pointed out below that it's less than 80 feet (the stopping distance at 40mph) from the debris to where the Uber parked. That means the vehicle either did slow, or the Uber moved, or the debris was released from the victim's bags halfway through deceleration.
I hope Uber can shed more light on just why, according to police, the vehicle did not even attempt to slow down.
Other news revealed yesterday:
- The road median has paved walkways but also has signs telling pedestrians not to cross and to go to the main crosswalk. As such, under normal Arizona law, the car had the right of way.
- The woman is indeed homeless, and was recently incarcerated. However, she has family and friends who are aware events. There is no sign of impairment of either the pedestrian or safety driver.
- The new Arizona self-driving car law brought in just last month may allow Uber to receive criminal liability -- if there is such liability, of course.
- Police are not saying a lot, though they have made some statements to confirm that pedestrian crossing at that location is illegal and the car had right of way.
- At the same time, what a terrible street design -- big paved pedestrian paths that go to the beach in the middle of the median, leading to road signs telling pedestrians not to cross the road here! Who would not cross, in spite of such signs?
- The Uber safety driver reportedly served 4 years for attempted armed robbery, but was hired under an Uber program to give ex-cons a new start. The criminal record need not have bearing on her driving ability of course, however I do believe that Uber's methods for selecting, training and testing its safety drivers will see some scrutiny if there was fault for the safety driver.
The original police statement said the car was going 40mph in a 35mph zone. It turns out to be a 45 mph zone, so I have removed notes on whether robocars should speed. The argument for that can be found on my web site.
On safety records
Uber now has a tall order to claim they have a properly safe robocar. Human drivers have a fatality about every 80 million miles, though a bit more frequently on city streets. Killing a pedestrian is much less frequent. This is regardless of blame. Uber now will have an almost impossible job of stating their vehicle is better than human drivers, even if they drive their next 100 million miles without another fatality. Of course, every week there is a new revision on the road, and the software that was in this car will probably never run again.
I outlined likely strategy in my article on Robocar accidents. First, they have probably already fully examined the accident in their sensor logs, and know if they made any mistakes or were at fault. They may even know what caused any fault, or will soon.
If they decide they are at fault, if they are smart, they will immediately admit it and make restitution, unless police attempt some sort of criminal liability. If they don't think they have that, they might decide to fight it.
They will also consider the potential of a wrongful death lawsuit from the family of the victim. As a homeless person, actual damages in such a suit would probably be much lower than in a suit for somebody who was actively engaged with their family, but that will be for those looking closely at the situation to decide. Certainly there should be no shortage of counsel willing to take such a case, because it will be precedent setting.
Unless Uber feels it will certainly win and come out looking good, they will probably make an immediate and generous settlement offer. While the counsel may want the famous case, their duty is to recommend acceptance of a settlement that is truly generous. Uber would likely only let this go to trial if they thought they had a very solid chance of winning and being clearly in the right. From a public perception, fighting the family of a woman they killed is never going to look good for them.
If Uber's examination finds the system failed in a major way, that's even more reason to accept judgment and offer a generous settlement. While it's unlikely, if the cause of the failure can be shown to be negligence, the cost can be very high. While punitive damages are actually fairly rare, and require a pattern of deliberate disregard, they are not off the table in a case like this. While Uber has been trying to turn into a new company, their reputation is far from stellar on these points.