IIHS Report Slams Uber for Turning Off Braking System Before Fatal Crash

The automatic emergency braking system built into the Uber self-driving car that killed a pedestrian in March would have prevented or mitigated the crash, an insurance industry research group says in a new report.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Highway Loss Data Institute slammed Uber for turning off the braking system, saying the feature could have allowed the Volvo XC90 to slow or stop before the March 18 accident in Tempe, Ariz., that killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg.

“What’s chilling is that the engineers behind Uber’s software program disabled the system’s ability to avoid a life-or-death scenario while testing on public roads,” Chief Research Officer David Zuby noted in the report, released on August 7. “Uber decided to forgo a safety net in its quest to teach an unproven computer-control system how to drive.”

IIHS, which tests new vehicles and issues safety ratings, doesn’t yet rate advanced driver assistance features like automatic emergency braking, which is available on a growing number of models. But in the report, the group said its own tests and those of other safety organizations have found the XC90’s system works well enough to avoid hitting pedestrians at similar speeds.

Herzberg was walking her bicycle across a multilane road at night when the autonomous vehicle hit her at about 40mph. Dashcam video indicated the lone backup driver was not watching the road until just before the crash and applied the brakes only after impact.

IIHS contends the built-in braking system would have worked if activated.

“In 35 mph track tests of an XC90, the Volvo system proved extremely capable of avoiding hitting a pedestrian,” the group said. Tests by Euro New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) and by Thatcham Research Centre in the UK also indicate the system could have prevented the fatal impact, IIHS said.

The IIHS paper came weeks after other reports on the incident, but it contains some of the most pointed criticism of Uber in the wake of the crash. IIHS based its conclusion partly on the facts contained in a preliminary report released in May by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which said Uber had turned off the braking system.

Soon after the accident, Uber halted its autonomous vehicle tests on public roads in the US. It recently brought self-driving cars back on the streets of Pittsburgh, but only in manual mode for now.

“We remain an active party to the NTSB’s investigation, whose final report has yet to be released. In the meantime, we’ve implemented a set of safeguards that we believe improve operations of our self-driving technology and look forward to publishing a voluntary safety self-assessment in the coming months,” the company said in a statement.

In the current manual-driving phase of the program, automatic emergency braking is enabled, Uber said in a recent blog post.

In March, Uber had turned off automatic braking on test cars while they were under computer control, in order to prevent erratic behavior by the vehicles, according to the NTSB report. The self-driving system Uber added to the vehicle detected and eventually identified Herzberg’s bike, but it didn’t apply the brakes or alert the backup driver. Instead, Uber relied on the driver to respond to objects in the road.

A system to alert the driver also could have helped to mitigate the crash by allowing for a quicker response time, IIHS said.

See also Current ACC Too “Dangerous” for Road, Say Insurers.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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