Monday, May 28, 2018

Human And Autonomous Driving: A Deadly Mix?

"Who's in charge here?"  If people in an organization can't give a clear answer to that question, chances are the organization is in trouble.  And something along those lines may apply to cars as well as to human organizations.  That's the lesson we can draw from the preliminary report released by the U. S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) last Thursday, May 24, concerning the fatal collision between a pedestrian and a semi-autonomous vehicle operated by Uber in Tempe, Arizona last March 18. 

To summarize the accident, around 9:39 PM on that Sunday night, Elaine Hertzberg chose to walk her bicycle across a divided street in between crosswalks, in a section of road that was poorly illuminated by streetlights.  She was not wearing reflective clothing and her bicycle had no side reflectors.  She apparently did not see the oncoming car until just before the collision.  Subsequent toxicology tests showed traces of marijuana and methamphetamine in her system.  Regardless of her condition, it's the responsibility of drivers (or the car's computer) to look out for the behavior of all pedestrians, even those who aren't behaving with normal alertness.  And if this responsibility is split or ambiguous, trouble is brewing.
An in-cab video released after the accident shows that the car's driver was studying something below the windshield in the cab until she saw the pedestrian just before the accident.  In my earlier blog on this incident, I mistakenly speculated that she was looking at her cellphone instead of the road, but it turns out she was monitoring a display of the self-driving car's behavior, as part of what was basically a research project in which the driver would take the car out on prescribed routes to test its systems. 

The most informative piece of evidence in the NTSB preliminary report concerns the state the car was in just before the crash.  The Volvo was equipped both with the latest Volvo-engineered safety systems, including a collision-avoidance system, and also with Uber-installed computer control.  Probably to avoid interference between the two systems, the Volvo safety controls were disabled when the Uber computer was set to operate the vehicle.  The Uber computer system is able to determine when emergency (hard) braking maneuvers are needed, and is capable of executing them.  But at the time of the accident, the emergency braking function was disabled, as Uber found it had led to erratic behavior.  The operator was apparently aware of this setting and of her responsibility to take emergency actions as needed, in addition to monitoring the vehicle's operations on the screen and "tagging events of interest for subsequent review." 

People can do only so much at once.  Abundant research has shown that too many distractions degrade a driver's ability to respond to unexpected emergencies.  Uber was basically running an experiment requiring significant driver attention while operating their vehicles on public roads.  It didn't take too long for the unfortunate combination of a driver distracted by monitoring tasks to coincide with a pedestrian whose attention was clouded to lead to a tragedy, and to suspension of Uber's experimental autonomous-car program, plus numerous calls on the part of state and federal lawmakers for a slowdown in the deployment of autonomous vehicles.

The final report from NTSB on this fatal accident will probably not come out until next year.  But their preliminary report shows how things can go wrong tragically under the current regime of what are called level-2 and level-3 autonomous driving systems.  The five-level ranking system goes from Level 0, which is what I can do in our 1955 Oldsmobile (no computer within miles) to the hypothetical Level 5, the yet-to-be-realized situation in which the self-driving car performs absolutely all driving functions and the passenger's participation is limited to telling the car where to go when he or she gets in. 

No one has yet deployed a Level 5 vehicle, and getting there will require extensive testing of lower-level systems in the real world.  Testing involves risks and unknowns—otherwise you wouldn't learn anything from it.  The dicey problem faced by autonomous-vehicle developers has always been to strike the right balance between exposing their systems to a wide enough variety of real-life situations to learn enough to improve them, and not taking so many risks that one of the close calls turns into a severe injury or fatality, as the Uber accident did.

One of the fond hopes of self-driving-car promoters is that once we get to the point where their well-designed systems are extensively employed, automotive fatality rates should start to decline steeply.  Nobody (well, almost nobody except a few suicidal maniacs) wants to die in a car wreck, and so from a utilitarian perspective, if a few people die during early-phase testing of self-driving cars, but then as a result thousands get to live who would otherwise have been killed by cars driven by people, that's a good tradeoff.

But that cold mathematical view doesn't appeal to our emotional side, and so the media and legislators react to a single fatality in a way that seems out of proportion.  I'm not sure it is, though.

What we may be seeing is part of a very normal process of social self-regulating feedback that has led to improvements in safety ever since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.  The first thing that has to happen in this process, unfortunately, is that somebody gets killed.  And the reason they were killed has to do with a new technology.  The bad publicity attracts attention from the public, who is now less inclined to welcome the new technology; those in the position to regulate the technology, such as legislators;  and the promoters of the technology itself, who are moved to improve safety out of self-preservation.  Laws or regulations are enacted by legislators or private entities such as insurance companies, and the new industry sometimes imposes new rules on itself.   The causes of the original fatalities are mitigated or removed, and life goes on with the new technology, which in the course of time becomes old and familiar.  This happened with steamboats in the 1800s, it happened with human-driven automobiles in the early 1900s, and it appears to be happening with self-driving cars now.

As long as we don't get into some kind of prohibition panic and ban all self-driving cars forever, reasonable rules about testing new systems and deploying market-ready ones can be devised.  Compromises will have to be made.  Even if all cars were Level-5 quality tomorrow, a few people would still die in car accidents.  But chances are there would be a lot fewer than 40,000 or so per year, which is what the U. S. automobile fatality rate is running at today.  And many of those fatalities are caused by distracted drivers, including the Uber driver who had too many things to watch on the dashboard, and failed to see the pedestrian until it was too late.

Sources:  A news report summarizing the NTSB findings appeared on May 24 on the Reuters website at  The preliminary report itself can be downloaded at  I first blogged on this incident on Mar. 26, 2018 at

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