Monday, March 26, 2018

Self-Driving Car Kills Pedestrian

Mill Avenue near Curry Road in Tempe, Arizona is a wide four-lane surface road with few streetlights. Around 10:30 PM on the night of Sunday, March 18, it was quite dark where Elaine Hertzberg, 49, chose to walk her bicycle across the road in the middle of a block, instead of crossing at a designated crosswalk.  From a dashcam video of the accident that happened a few seconds later, it does not appear that her bicycle had any lights or reflectors on it, and she wasn't looking in the direction of oncoming traffic as she slowly rolled her bike across.

Meanwhile, in a self-driving car operated by the ride service Uber, Rafael (or Rafaela—sources differ) Vasquez, 44, was behind the wheel.  But as well-functioning self-driving vehicles tend to do, the car had driven itself so well without difficulties in the past that Vasquez had gotten used to doing things other than keeping her eyes on the road all the time.  A video of the car interior taken simultaneously with the dashcam video shows Vasquez glancing up occasionally, but most of the time she has her eyes on something in her lap—possibly a cellphone. 

Hertzberg and her bicycle were well into the car's lane before they showed up in the headlights.  But the bicyclist was moving too slowly—or the car was going too fast—for her to get out of the way before it hit her.  She died at a local hospital a short time later, becoming the first pedestrian to die in an accident involving an autonomous vehicle.

In the week just ended, several experts have criticized Uber for fielding a self-driving system that could have failed so easily.  Uber's autonomous vehicles are equipped with radars and lidars (essentially, radars using light), and should have detected Hertzberg or her bicycle before she came into view in the car's headlights.  But the video reveals no sign such as swerving or braking that the system had any sign that she was there.  And Vasquez happened to glance up only a second or two before the collision, so she was unable to do anything until it was too late.

This death both draws attention to possible defects in Uber's self-driving cars, and also calls into question the usefulness of backup drivers in such vehicles.

Most self-driving cars today are in a kind of gray area, neither completely independent of human assistance but not needing it most of the time.  In the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's five-level classification of self-driving cars, the highest level out there according to one expert is Level 3, which says that the automated driving system (ADS) performs all driving tasks under "some circumstances," but the human driver must be prepared to take over at the request of the ADS.  I don't know about you, but I would have a lot of trouble sitting in the driver's seat and waiting for a call that might not come for hours or days.  Boredom sets in, and it's no wonder Vasquez was looking at her cellphone when she should have been watching the road.  So as long as humans are designed to be in the loop of controlling the car, the humans will have an opportunity to drop the ball, and last Sunday, that's what happened.

On the other hand, it would be hard for designers to make the leap straight from Level 0 (totally human-driven cars) to Level 5 (humans are passengers only, and the car does all the driving all the time) without months and years of real-life testing, as well as computer simulations.  And so you get into a chicken-and-egg situation:  how do you design a Level-5-competence car without testing it in real traffic, but if it's not Level 5 yet, how do you test it without a human driver to help out?  The answer is, you don't, so we have Level 2 and Level 3 cars out there with people behind the wheel, but inevitably, some of the drivers start treating the car like it was a Level 5, and you get accidents. 

This mishap will be thoroughly investigated, so it is too soon to draw any definite conclusions about the cause.  It may turn out that some of the vital systems in the Uber car were temporarily out of commission, or that the pedestrian's bicycle confused the sensors somehow, or that some other explanation is the case that we can't even imagine now.  Uber has commendably suspended all operations of their self-driving cars.  But once the cause or causes are found, the state of self-driving-car engineering can move forward with added understanding, which is how engineering usually works—learning from failures sometimes more than from successes.

It's usually dangerous to commit a known wrong in the present on the chance that it will lead to something better that might result from it in the future.  That's how we got Communism's mass slaughters in the name of the glorious egalitarian future that never came.  But there is no indication that Uber has been so negligent as to allow this accident to happen on purpose.  The first fatality involving steam locomotives didn't stop the progress of railroads, and this first fatality involving a pedestrian and a self-driving car will not stop the development of Level 5 cars, which promise eventually to reduce the already declining number of automotive deaths in both the U. S. and abroad.   It's likely that if we could give every person convicted of DWI a self-driving car right now, the net auto fatality rate might plunge significantly.  I'm not recommending that, but if we don't have the gumption to stop drunks from driving, we should take the keys out of their hands and give them to robots as soon as the market and the technology are ready. 

I'm sure that Elaine Hertzberg had no desire to become posthumously famous by being the first pedestrian to die from being hit by a self-driving car.  But now that it's happened, it's the job of engineers to make sure that more lives are saved than lost by the advancement of self-driving car technology.

Sources:  A story on this accident by Associated Press writers Tom Krisher and Jacques Billeaud was picked up by numerous outlets such as the Phoenix ABC-TV station at  I also referred to articles in the Washington Post at and Forbes at  The dashcam and interior camera videos leading up to the moment before the crash can be viewed at

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