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Uber’s “inadequate safety culture” contributed to fatal crash

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recommended that Uber [NYSE: UBER] and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) require more oversight of automated vehicle (AV) testing procedures in the wake of a deadly crash involving a self-driving Uber car.

The proposed changes, issued Nov. 19, were made as part of NTSB’s investigation into a fatal March 2018 crash involving an Uber test car, a Volvo XC90 SUV, and a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. Elaine Herzberg, 49, was killed while jaywalking her bicycle across a major road at night. Authorities later determined she had been impaired by methamphetamines. Uber reportedly settled a lawsuit with her family shortly after the crash.

NTSB determined that the probable cause of the crash “was the failure of the vehicle operator to monitor the driving environment and the operation of the automated driving system because she was visually distracted” as she streamed a television show on her cell phone at the time of the crash.

In addition, NTSB found that Uber’s Advanced Technology Group (ATG), which conducts AV testing, employed “inadequate safety risk assessment procedures, ineffective oversight of its vehicle operators, and a lack of ways to address operators’ automation complacency — all a consequence of its inadequate safety culture,” said NTSB Deputy Managing Director Paul Sledzik.

Other factors contributing to the crash, NTSB concluded, were the pedestrian’s impairment while crossing outside a crosswalk and the state of Arizona’s insufficient oversight of AV testing.

Among the six recommendations issued by the NTSB, the agency advised NHTSA to require companies that are testing or intend to test an AV driving system on public roads to submit to the agency a safety self-assessment report. In addition, NTSB recommends NHTSA determine whether those self-assessment plans include appropriate safeguards for testing an AV driving system on public roads including, if applicable, adequate monitoring of the driver’s engagement with the vehicle.

For Uber, NTSB recommends the company implement a safety management system (SMS) for AV system testing “that at minimum includes safety policy, safety risk management, safety assurance and safety promotion.”

In a statement to FreightWaves, an Uber spokesperson said the company regretted the crash that killed Herzberg.

Uber stock price after market close Nov. 19. Source: SONAR

“In the wake of this tragedy, the team at Uber ATG has adopted critical program improvements to further prioritize safety. We deeply value the thoroughness of the NTSB’s investigation into the crash and look forward to reviewing their recommendations.” The company made a series of operational, technical and organizational changes over the past year while working with the NTSB, which praised the company for starting the safety overhaul process early.

“From day one they were transparent and cooperative, and our communications with them became an open dialogue that afforded them the opportunity to take that dialogue and to make improvements early in the investigation,” said David Pereira, the agency’s highway safety investigator.

However, NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy took NHTSA to task for its lack of oversight requirements in the AV space.

“I wrote laws for over 14 years, and there’s a big difference between the words ‘should,’ ‘encourage to’ and ‘shall,’” Homendy said. “I actually think there’s a major failing on the federal government’s part — and the state of Arizona — for failing to regulate these operations. We’re asking NHTSA to make these safety assessments mandatory.”

Also among NTSB’s recommendations were for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA), whose members comprise the departments of motor vehicles for all 50 states, to inform states about the circumstances of the Tempe crash.

In addition, AAMVA should encourage its members to “require developers to submit an application for testing ADS-equipped vehicles that at a minimum details a plan to manage the risk associated with crashes and operator inattentiveness, and establishes countermeasures to prevent crashes or mitigate crash severity within the ADS testing parameters.”

John Gallagher, Washington Correspondent

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.

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