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Self-driving Uber car that hit and killed woman did not recognize that pedestrians jaywalk

The automated car lacked "the capability to classify an object as a pedestrian unless that object was near a crosswalk," an NTSB report said.
Image: Uber self driving car accident
A photo showing showing the bicycle matched up to the damaged areas on the Uber Volvo.National Transportation Safety Board

A self-driving Uber car that struck and killed an Arizona woman wasn't able to recognize that pedestrians jaywalk, federal safety investigators revealed in documents released earlier this week.

Elaine Herzberg, 49, died after she was hit in March 2018 by a Volvo SUV, which had an operator in the driver's seat and was traveling at about 40 mph in autonomous mode at night in Tempe.

The fatal accident came as a result of the automated Uber's not having "the capability to classify an object as a pedestrian unless that object was near a crosswalk," said one of the documents released by the National Traffic Safety Board, or NTSB.

Because the car couldn't recognize Herzberg as a pedestrian or a person — instead alternating between classifications of "vehicle, bicycle, and an other" — it couldn't correctly predict her path and concluded that it needed to brake just 1.3 seconds before it struck her as she wheeled her bicycle across the street a little before 10 p.m.

Uber told the NTSB that it "has since modified its programming to include jaywalkers among its recognized objects," but other concerns were also expressed in NTSB's report.

Uber had disabled the emergency braking system, relying on the driver to stop in this situation, but the system wasn't designed to alert the operator, who "intervened less than a second before impact by engaging the steering wheel," the documents said.

The safety driver was working alone — a recent change in procedure — and didn't keep her eyes on the road, the report said. She was streaming the television show "The Voice," according to a police report cited by NBC Philadelphia.

The NTSB also said Uber's Advanced Technologies Group had a technical system safety team in place but failed to "have a standalone operational safety division or safety manager." The company also "did not have a formal safety plan, a standardized operations procedure (SOP) or guiding document for safety."

Sarah Abboud, a spokeswoman for Uber, told Reuters that the company regretted the crash, but she said Uber's automated program has "adopted critical program improvements to further prioritize safety."

"We deeply value the thoroughness of the NTSB's investigation into the crash and look forward to reviewing their recommendations," she said.

From September 2016 to March 2018, Uber's test vehicles were involved in 37 crashes while driving autonomously, but only two were the result of a car's failure to identify a roadway hazard.

Herzberg's family settled with Uber out of court. Uber announced that it had relaunched its self-driving cars nine months after the accident.