Uber death may have been avoidable with Volvo’s technology

The Uber Technologies Inc. application icon seen in an arranged photograph taken in Bangkok, Thailand. (Bloomberg pic)

SOUTHFIELD: The Uber Technologies Inc. self-driving test vehicle that killed a pedestrian in Arizona earlier this year may have been able to avoid the crash had the ride-hailing company not disabled Volvo Cars’ safety system, according to a safety group.

In a report Tuesday, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety criticized Uber for turning off Volvo’s collision-avoidance technology in the XC90 sport utility vehicle that struck and killed a woman in Tempe on March 18. The insurer group’s chief research officer, David Zuby, vouched for the effectiveness of Volvo’s system, saying it would have prevented or mitigated the crash.

“I think it’s possible that, had the system been able to intervene, the fatality may not have occurred,” Zuby said in a phone interview. “I would argue that if developers of self-driving technology really intend to make our roads safer, they had better make sure they have the best crash-avoidance systems in place before they go out on the road.”

The fatality spurred Uber’s suspension of public road testing with its self-driving vehicles, and raised questions about both the safety of the company’s technology and its protocols with regards to use of human backup drivers. Police said in June that the woman behind the wheel in the Uber SUV was streaming the popular television show “The Voice” on her mobile phone in the moments before the crash.

An Uber spokesman said the company is still an active party to a US National Transportation Board investigation, and that the agency hasn’t released a final report on the incident. Uber has put a set of safeguards in place to improve its self-driving operations and plans to publish a voluntary safety self-assessment in the coming months, the spokesman said.

The NTSB said in a preliminary report in May that sensors on Uber’s SUV detected the female pedestrian, who was crossing a street at night outside a crosswalk. But Uber told the agency’s investigators that automatic emergency braking manoeuvres weren’t enabled while the vehicle was under computer control, to reduce the potential for “erratic vehicle behaviour.” The company left braking up to the safety driver and didn’t design its system to alert the human operator.

“Uber decided to forgo a safety net in its quest to teach an unproven computer-control system how to drive,” Zuby said in IIHS’s report.