Weekly Brief: Uber death throws autonomous testing into doubt

An Uber self-driving car driving in autonomous mode struck a 49-year-old homeless woman walking a bike across a road late at night in Tempe, Arizona, last week. The car’s dashcam video recording shows the woman’s appearance was abrupt albeit she had crossed the outside lanes without incident and was making for the pedestrian pavement. Yet despite the car’s much-lauded sensor technology, it did not pick this comparatively large human and metal object crossing the carriageways from the left and showed not the slightest sign of slowing down from its cruising speed of 40mph. The safety driver behind the wheel took no action to avoid the collision and footage from inside the car also shows that the driver was distracted and looking down at his lap rather than at the road at the time. The woman was killed upon impact, making her the first pedestrian victim in self-driving car history.

A team from the National Highway Traffic Safety Institute (NHTSA) is on the ground investigating the incident further. Uber has suspended its entire self-driving programme, which had already been showing signs of problems. Waymo boasts that its test cars in California travel an average of nearly 5,600 miles in between driver interventions; Uber couldn’t even hit its stated goal of 13 miles in between driver interventions in Arizona. Waymo‘s CEO John Krafcik claimed that Waymo’s self-driving system would have detected the woman and avoided a collision. The company that designed the sensors on the Uber vehicle, Velodyne, said that it was “baffled” by the accident, noting that its sensors can see in the dark. 

Being baffled doesn’t cut it when thousands of self-driving cars are now moving around public roads and Waymo is set to deploy a fully autonomous robo-taxi service in Phoenix, Arizona, in the coming months. Perhaps Waymo doesn’t deserve to take the heat for Uber’s accident but suffice to say that the whole industry is bound to come under heightened scrutiny in the next few weeks and months. Safety advocacy group Consumer Watchdog has called for a moratorium on the testing of all self-driving cars until we know more. Toyota is the only company to comply so far.

In other news Chinese search giant Baidu received Beijing’s first batch of licenses to conduct open road tests for its autonomous driving vehicles in designated areas of the city. At the launch ceremony last week, five cars powered by Apollo, the open autonomous driving platform by Baidu, were taken for a public road test with their new permits in Yizhuang, part of the Daxing district in the southeast suburbs of Beijing. Baidu is the only company to receive such permits to date.

Ford unveiled FordPass SmartLink, an easy way for ford owners with older-model Ford vehicles to upgrade to a modern suite of connected car features. The device plugs into the OBD II port and delivers a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, smartphone control of existing key fob features, vehicle health and security alerts and vehicle location tracking. Here’s the catch: it only works for owners of 2010-17 model year Ford vehicles, so if you’ve got a really old rig, you’re out of luck. Price is $16.99 (£12) a month for 24 months.

Audi is expanding its vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) traffic light information service to Washington, D.C. Six hundred intersections in the capital city will now communicate with Audi vehicles and let drivers know the precise time-to-green. D.C. brings the total number of participating cities to six, including Las Vegas, Nevada, Dallas and Houston in Texas, Palo Alto and Arcadia in (CA), Denver, Colorado, and Portland, Oregon.

SiriusXM will launch an aftermarket connected car solution for dealers this summer. The solution allows dealerships to add a suite of connected offerings, including crash alerts, real-time vehicle monitoring, roadside assistance, and smart home device integration, for a net cost as low as $40 per vehicle. SiriusXM will launch the device through its sub-company Automatic Labs.

Sticking with SiriusXM, Hyundai Motor America agreed to extend its ongoing relationship with SiriusXM for five more years. Customers buying Hyundai and Genesis brand vehicles will continue to get a three-month introductory SiriusXM All Access subscription, which includes access to the SiriusXM mobile app, with the purchase of equipped vehicles through the 2022 model year.
The Weekly Brief is a round-up of the week’s top telematics news, combining TU-Automotive analysis with information from industry sources.

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