While it will perhaps remain an unknown just how safe competitor self-driving vehicle systems are for awhile longer, there is now no doubt at this point that Uber has been negligent when it comes to the safety of its test vehicles. Numerous ex-employees have now come out to reveal that Uber slashed the number of LiDAR units per vehicle from 7 to 1 in 2016, when the switch from Ford Fusion units to Volvo SUVs was made.
This large reduction in sensor tech apparently created a pedestrian “blind zone” around the perimeter of the SUV. Unsurprisingly, this blind zone eventually led to a pedestrian fatality — the recent, widely reported on death in Tempe, Arizona.
So, to put the implications of this in blunt terms: Uber knowingly skimped on safety in order to reduce costs, directly resulting in the death of a pedestrian. The firm seems to be clearly negligent. This is par the course for company management, it would seem.
To hear 5 former Uber self-driving program employees and 4 industry experts quoted by Reuters tell it, the self-driving Uber Volvo SUVs in question are/were just about the least safe test vehicles out there (they possess more in the way of blind spots, reportedly, by far). This is partly due to the lack of enough sensors, but also due to the blind spots created by this deficiency in combination with the relatively high ride of the Volvo SUVs in question.
LiDAR sensors, for those unfamiliar with them, are sort of like “light/laser radar” systems, to greatly oversimplify the matter. To date, they have been the most expensive part of self-driving vehicle systems, and also the hardest sensor to utilize effectively. Waymo/Google has notably claimed that it is now able to manufacture its own LiDAR sensors at a cost much lower than they can currently be purchased at, which allows them to easily utilize LiDAR to a greater degree than competitors.
Also very notable is that Waymo’s LiDAR tech is exactly the part of its self-driving vehicle program that Uber tried to steal, and was subsequently sued for. (Federal criminal charges relating to that may still be pending.)
This is yet another sign pointing towards the veracity of the idea that Waymo/Google has a significant lead over its competitors in the self-driving vehicle sector.
Reuters provides more:
“In scaling back to a single lidar on the Volvo, Uber introduced a blind zone around the perimeter of the SUV that cannot fully detect pedestrians, according to interviews with former employees and Raj Rajkumar, the head of Carnegie Mellon University’s transportation center who has been working on self-driving technology for over a decade.
“The lidar system made by Velodyne — one of the top suppliers of sensors for self-driving vehicles — sees objects in a 360-degree circle around the car, but has a narrow vertical range that prevents it from detecting obstacles low to the ground, according to information on Velodyne’s website as well as former employees who operated the Uber SUVs.
“Autonomous vehicles operated by rivals Waymo, Alphabet Inc’s self-driving vehicle unit, have 6 lidar sensors, while General Motors Co’s vehicle contains 5, according to information from the companies…Uber management moved swiftly and confidently even as some car engineers voiced caution, according to former employees, in a rush to get more cars driving more miles…One former Uber employee involved in testing both the Fusions and Volvo SUVs said that during a test run in late 2016, the Volvo failed to see a delivery truck’s tailgate lift that extended into the street, and the car nearly hit it going 35 miles-per-hour.”
That being the case, it seems that Uber’s position is probably indefensible. Attempts to deflect responsibility for the pedestrian fatality are sure to continue (indefinitely I would guess), but it seems likely that authorities in various regions are likely to take a harder line towards Uber, and toward self-driving vehicle testing as a whole, as a result. At least in the US anyway, as the situation elsewhere may well prove different — as recent news concerning Baidu’s testing in China demonstrates.
Authorities in California are probably feeling pretty good right about now about having essentially kicked Uber’s self-driving vehicle development program out of the state awhile back.
Those who want to judge the degree of Uber’s complicity in the pedestrian fatality themselves will want to take a look at the video found in this article: Dashcam Video Of Collision With Pedestrian Released By Uber.
Also worth a read is this one: California Stats Show Uber’s Self-Driving Tech Is ~5,000 Times Worse Than Waymo’s (Google’s).