Last weekend, an Uber autonomous vehicle with a single emergency driver struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. Dash-cam video from the car shows that the pedestrian, who was actually pushing a bicycle, seemingly appeared out of nowhere on the darkened street, raising doubts about whether a human driver would have been able to react in time.
The problem for Uber, of course, is that autonomous vehicles are supposed to be far safer than human drivers and should have easily identified the presence of a bicycle and pedestrian. Instead, police report that the vehicle did not slow down at all before hitting the pedestrian, suggesting that the car’s sensors’ were totally blind to the pedestrian and bicycle.
In addition, the safety procedures that Uber supposedly had in place were clearly not being followed. According to the NY Times, the dash-cam also “showed the safety driver looking down, away from the road. It also appeared that the driver’s hands were not hovering above the steering wheel, which is what drivers are instructed to do so they can quickly retake control of the car”.
More disturbingly, however, but truly typical of the criminal corporate mentality at Uber, is what the Times reports about how Uber has cut corners in its autonomous vehicle program. Uber’s “cars were having trouble driving through construction zones and next to tall vehicles, like big rigs. And Uber’s human drivers had to intervene far more frequently than the drivers of competing autonomous car projects. Waymo, formerly the self-driving car project of Google, said that in tests on roads in California last year, its cars went an average of nearly 5,600 miles before the driver had to take control from the computer to steer out of trouble. As of March, Uber was struggling to meet its target of 13 miles per ‘intervention’ in Arizona”.
In addition, Uber originally had two safety drivers in each autonomous vehicle, one to “intervene” in dangerous situations and another to focus on the computer information coming from the vehicle. But Uber recently reduced the number of safety drivers to one, requiring them to handle both tasks. Worse, they installed an app in the vehicle’s middle console for the drivers to report problems. Of course, it was then impossible for the driver to use the app to report problems and maintain the required vigilance as a safety driver at the same time, unless the vehicle was completely stopped, which Uber apparently did not require in order to report problems. Some Uber employees expressed concerns about these changes but were rebuffed by management.
The reason is that Uber sees their autonomous vehicle program as the lifeline to save the company. Again, according to the Times, “there also was pressure to live up to a goal to offer a driverless car service by the end of the year and to impress top executives. Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s chief executive, was expected to visit Arizona in April, and leaders of the company’s development group in the Phoenix area wanted to give him a glitch-free ride in an autonomous car. Mr. Khosrowshahi’s trip was called ‘Milestone 1: Confidence ‘in the company documents”.
This isn’t the first time that an Uber vehicle has resulted in a pedestrian death. Back in 2014, an Uber driver killed a 6 year-old girl crossing the street. Because the driver was not logged in to the Uber app, Uber tried to claim it had no responsibility before essentially settling with the victim’s family. As it turned out, the driver had been cited for reckless driving in the past, something Uber somehow did not pick up in his background check. A few years ago, Olivia Nuzzi, then Daily Beast and now New York magazine reporter, detailed some of Uber drivers’ worst abuses from rape to simple assault, including being stalked by an Uber driver herself.
Yes, accidents will happen and no company is immune from bad employees. The specific problem with Uber is its cavalier attitude toward any restrictions or regulations at all. It only started to vet drivers when it was forced to do so. It routinely avoids responsibility for its employees’ actions. It cheats its employees and hides behind the fiction that they are “independent contractors”. It brazenly violates local laws all over the globe. It steals from its competitors and lies continually. And now its willingness to cut corners on safety has cost an innocent life.
At this point, Uber more resembles a Ponzi scheme than a real company. Its core business is a money-loser as it requires a nearly 60% subsidy from the company to make it competitive. Last year, it lost $4.5 billion, yes, with a “B”. Because of that, the company is desperately searching for another business that can make the company viable. Autonomous vehicles are an obvious solution because it eliminates the cost of a driver in its core business. But the company needs continual new investments in order to keep it afloat until it “perfects” its autonomous vehicles. That means there is pressure to show progress in the program and that means releasing technology that’s not ready and cutting corners on safety. In other words, employing the usual Uber approach. Dara Khosrowshahi may have replaced the odious Travis Kalanick at the helm, but it’s obvious that the toxic corporate culture at Uber remains. And someone may have died because of that. Again.
Originally published at tidalsoundings.blogspot.com on March 24, 2018.