According to a journalistic investigation by Business Insider, chaos at Uber and a desire to satisfy a new CEO may have been the reasons Uber techs and executives disabled the emergency braking function in the car that killed Elaine Herzberg.
Internal memos, meeting reports, and emails reveal that as Dara Khosrowshahi took over as CEO, a number of top executives were so intent on offering him pleasant test drive experiences that they ignored serious concerns about the prototype vehicles.
Journalists discovered that some of those leading execs feared Khosrowshahi might get rid of the self-driving car project. Their goal was to show him that they were moving fast, rather than honestly presenting what they had achieved. So the team engineered a hassle-free test ride for Dara to enjoy.
Though Herzberg’s death caused Uber to halt its autonomous car operations, the company is planning to resume pilot programs across the United States. Uber has been pouring between $600 million and $1 billion per year into its autonomous car operations.
Before Elaine Herzberg was so unfortunate as to cross paths with a self-driving Uber, engineers knew that the autonomous car’s software wasn’t ready for the real world and could not efficiently anticipate the trajectory of pedestrians and other vehicles. Insiders have commented that the car’s software performed very poorly at sensing objects and people at very close range.
The software routinely encountered hundreds of problems that required complex solutions. For example, a car would mistake the shadow of a branch for a moving object and call for assistance or switch off the autonomous mode. This reportedly prompted an executive to shout during a meeting, “This is unacceptable! We are above this! We shouldn’t be getting stuck on tree branches, so go figure it out.”
Meanwhile, engineers felt the simulation software they were using was poor, and there should be more frequent tests. An employee referred to the software as “almost nonexistent, utter garbage.”
John Uustal is a Fort Lauderdale trial lawyer with a national law practice focused on serious injuries resulting from dangerous and poorly designed products. His upcoming book Corporate Serial Killers focuses on companies that choose profits over safety.