Sensors off, lack of programming, led to Uber self-driving car Tempe death, NTSB reports

An Uber self-driving car. Photo by rexworld | Creative Commons

Sensors being turned off, a lack of programming and a pedestrian not crossing in a crosswalk all contributed to the first automated vehicle death ever in Tempe, according to a new report released by the National Traffic Safety Board on Tuesday. 

The NTSB report on the collision that killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg comes as investigators are set to meet in Washington D.C. on Nov. 19 to finalize their report and give a determination of cause. 

Investigators found that near-range cameras and 12 ultrasonic cameras that can detect pedestrians up to 16 feet away were not in use at the time of the accident. 

NTSB investigators also were able to get a full download of sensor data prior to the collision to get a full picture of the events leading up to the fatal crash. 

The car detected Herzberg 5.6 seconds before impact while she was in the road. However, “the system never classified her as a pedestrian.”

The area of Mill Avenue where Herzberg was crossing does not have a crosswalk and investigators found that Uber’s system did not include “a consideration for jaywalking pedestrians.” 

“Instead, the system had initially classified her as an other object which are not assigned goals,” the report states, adding that the car began “alternating between vehicle, bicycle, and an other,” causing it to unreliably predict Herzberg’s path prior to the collision.

At approximately 0.2 seconds before hitting Herzberg, the car decided to start slowing down and began initiating an auditory alert to the driver. 

At 0.7 seconds after hitting Herzberg, driver Rafaela Vasquez hit the brakes on the car.

A diagram of the events leading up to the fatal collision by the NTSB.

The car had only been about 19 minutes into its nightly journey when the fatal accident in Tempe happened. It was heading down Mill Avenue at close to 45 mph about 4 seconds before impact. 

Investigators also found that the car had suppressed its urge to brake for a period of time. The “action suppression” mode was meant to prevent false alarms — in case a plastic bag or similar object floated in front of the car, it would prevent it from braking erratically. 

Since the collision, Uber has moved its testing to an area near itsPittsburgh headquarters where the speed limit is 25 mph, and removed the action suppression feature. 

The NTSB report gives a more detailed glimpse at the different things that went wrong leading up to the crash but falls short of casting any blame, something that investigators will determine in a final report due on Nov. 19. 

Herzberg’s family settled out of court for an undisclosed amount against Uber, but a lawsuit brought against the City of Tempe by her daughter appears to be ongoing. 

The case, which includes Tempe and the State of Arizona, claims that the city was negligent in its design of the roadway and that, in part, led to Herzberg’s death. 

“This design was unreasonably dangerous because it includes brick paved walkways that were apparently designed for pedestrian use and that encouraged pedestrians to cross Mill Avenue,” the suit states. “Defendant City of Tempe was on notice that pedestrians were using these walkways to cross Mill Avenue because it posted a sign directing people not to do so.”

Around the time Herzberg’s daughter filed a $10 million notice of claim with the city, Tempe removed the brick walkway

“Tempe nor the Tempe Police Department received a copy of the report prior to its release to the public and has not had an opportunity to review the report,” Tempe Police spokeswoman Det. Natalie Barela said in a written statement to the Mirror. “The City of Tempe and the Tempe Police Department mourn the loss of our resident. All questions pertaining to the NTSB report should be directed to the NTSB for additional information and comment.”

Uber did not respond to a request for comment for this story. 

Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.