Should Uber get out of Waymo’s way and let the grown-ups develop self-driving cars?


While it’s only a matter of time before autonomous adoption and the IoT revolution comes to a city near you, Uber didn’t do anything to help usher it along last week. First, of course, Uber now wears the badge of honor for being the first company to kill someone with a self-driving car on a public road. Then, the horrific video showing 49 year old, Elaine Herzberg being struck by Uber’s Volvo XC90 SUV emerged.

Now the New York Times reports that Uber, still trying to reinvent itself after sexual harassment and leadership scandals, was under pressure to get its autonomous-driving ride-sharing program up and running for public use by the end of the year. All of this while the cars were having trouble driving themselves safely and the company was reducing human backup. They claim the reduction was only in data-gathering, not related to safety.

The so-called human backup wasn’t exactly doing much to backup anything in the death of Herzberg. The video clearly shows the driver, Rafaela Vasquez, 44, repeatedly taking her eyes off the road in the run-up to the deadly collision.

According to the recent report, “Uber’s cars were having trouble driving through construction zones and next to tall vehicles, like big rigs. And Uber’s human drivers had to intervene far more frequently than the drivers of competing autonomous car projects.”

That’s another aspect of Uber’s legacy that persists: secrecy. Unlike Waymo and Cruise (GM’s autonomous division), that make their reports public, Uber doesn’t make their tests public. Besides the Times report, there is only anecdotal evidence of Uber cars swerving into bike lanes and having other close calls.

Interestingly, and perhaps key to the pedestrian death, is that one of the terms of the Waymo-Uber settlement, was that Uber was not allowed to use the custom-built Lidar system that Waymo developed. They write:

One of the most powerful parts of our self-driving technology is our custom-built LiDAR — or ‘Light Detection and Ranging.’ LiDAR works by bouncing millions of laser beams off surrounding objects and measuring how long it takes for the light to reflect, painting a 3D picture of the world. LiDAR is critical to detecting and measuring the shape, speed and movement of objects like cyclists, vehicles and pedestrians.

Hundreds of Waymo engineers have spent thousands of hours, and our company has invested millions of dollars to design a highly specialized and unique LiDAR system. Waymo engineers have driven down the cost of LiDAR dramatically even as we’ve improved the quality and reliability of its performance. The configuration and specifications of our LiDAR sensors are unique to Waymo. Misappropriating this technology is akin to stealing a secret recipe from a beverage company.

Marta Thoma Hall, president of Velodyne Lidar, maker of the special laser radar that helps an autonomous car see its surroundings, said the company doesn’t believe its technology failed. But she’s surprised the car didn’t detect 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg as she pushed her bike across a road around 10 p.m.

“Certainly, our Lidar is capable of clearly imaging Elaine and her bicycle in this situation,” Thoma Hall wrote in an email. “However, our Lidar doesn’t make the decision to put on the brakes or get out of her way.

“In addition to Lidar, autonomous systems typically have several sensors, including camera and radar to make decisions,” she wrote. “We don’t know what sensors were on the Uber car that evening, if they were working, or how they were being used.”

She said that Lidar has no problems seeing in the dark. “However, it is up to the rest of the system to interpret and use the data to make decisions. We do not know how the Uber system of decision-making works,” she added.

Uber already has a troubled legacy, and the PR disasters have amounted to serious grief to the emerging industry—which is otherwise playing by the rules. When Uber didn’t like San Francisco’s autonomous testing requirements they took their ball and made a public display of moving to Arizona, where there would be less pressure on following procedures.

Uber Technologies Inc. halted its testing program Monday. Other companies followed suit. Waymo declined to say if it was changing its plans, but kept vehicles on the road in Arizona.

The technology not only failed, but Uber is also responsible for the death, writes The Drive’s Alex Roy in a strongly worded examination of Uber’s culpability. “Even if you believe self-driving cars may someday reduce road fatalities—and I do believe that—this dashcam video is an icepick in the face of the argument that anyone at Uber gives a damn about anyone’s safety, including that of their own test drivers.”

It’s time for Uber to pack up their self-driving project, and let the adults in the room run the show. Do no harm should be the mantra of self-driving companies, not get the hell out of our way.

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Chad Prevost

Chad is radio host and broadcast media specialist for FreightWaves.