A recent Business Insider investigation revealed that the pressure to beat self-driving tech competitors and “vast dysfunction” at the company´s Advanced Tech unit might have been at the root of some of the fatal accidents involving the ridesharing giant´s automated vehicle project.
After interviewing Uber techs and reviewing hundreds of internal documents, journalists concluded that speed in launching new releases was almost more important than safety when it came to the company’s goals. According to one of the employees interviewed, the insufficiently tested tech “could have killed a toddler. That’s the accident that didn’t happen but could have.”
When a self-driving Uber with a safety driver ran over Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona, employees expressed utter shock. Some dismissed the event as an accident caused mainly by Herzberg´s recklessness, especially after it came to light that her blood tested positive for meth and marijuana. “People were blaming everything on her,” an Uber employee told Business Insider.
But the technology was, at least partially, responsible for the death. The National Traffic Safety Board (“NTSB”) found that the autonomous car did recognize Herzberg six seconds before hitting her. It took the car five seconds more to realize it had to brake. By that point, the car’s system was unable to brake.
How could that happen?
Uber engineers had disabled the emergency stop function (“slamming on the brakes”) when the autonomous car perceived what Uber techs referred to “a squishy thing,” a term that could refer to either a human or an animal.
According to the NTSB’s findings, Uber had disabled this type of emergency braking while in autonomous mode!
When footage of the accident was made public, there was, of course, outrage at the fact that the safety driver was watching a movie on Hulu at the time. But the engineering decision leading up to the death should not be overlooked.
The Business Insider investigation shows how the companies competing to lead the market in self-driving cars can choose speed over safety, resulting in fatalities.
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.