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Federal Report On Fatal Uber Crash Reveals The Tech Wasn't Equipped To Detect Jaywalkers

Allyson Ruggieri
90.5 WESA
A self-driving Uber sits at a stop sign on 11th Street on Pittsburgh's South Side.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board have found Uber's self-driving technology was not built to detect jaywalkers. The NTSB began investigating after a woman walking across the street with her bike was struck and killed in Tempe, Ariz. in March 2018.

Self-driving Ubers were involved in 37 crashes before the fatality, according to the report, but the Uber was the striking vehicle in only two of the accidents.

The driver of the car in the March 2018 fatality worked from 4:00 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. four days per week. Police said the worker in the driver's seat in the autonomous Uber was streaming a television show and looking downwards right before the crash.

According to the NTSB, the autonomous driving system on the Uber spotted the woman crossing the street six seconds before it hit her, and did not stop because the system used to automatically apply brakes was disabled. 

Uber's Advanced Technology Group, which is responsible for developing autonomous vehicles, is headquartered in the Strip District. The company currently tests its self-driving cars in Pittsburgh with two employees in the car, up from one at the time of the accident.

Raj Rajkumar, an expert on autonomous cars at Carnegie Mellon University, said the past decade of self-driving car development has been like an arms race, and the 2018 fatality was a wakeup call.

"Every company in the space basically got a slap in the face and said 'Hey, can this happen in our context,'" Rajkumar said. "'What are we doing to prevent a tragedy like this from happening?'"

Rajkumar said some self-driving car companies have misrepresented how long it will take to perfect the technology.

"Self-driving is not a simple activity, it's quite complex," Rajkumar said. "It's going to take time, many years, so 'customer beware.'"

In response to the NTSB report, a spokesperson for Uber said the company is now testing for jaywalking scenarios in simulations and on test tracks.

"In the wake of this tragedy, the team at Uber ATG has adopted critical program improvements to further prioritize safety," the spokesperson said.

The NTSB will give recommendations to Uber at its Nov. 19 board meeting, which Uber said it looks forward to reviewing.

There is no federal oversight of autonomous car testing in the United States. In April 2018, just weeks after the crash, the state of Pennsylvania announced voluntary guidelines for self-driving car companies.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.