Uber's self-driving cars were struggling before Arizona crash

US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators examine a self-driving Uber vehicle involved in a fatal accident in Tempe, Arizona, on March 20, 2018.
US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators examine a self-driving Uber vehicle involved in a fatal accident in Tempe, Arizona, on March 20, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO (NYTIMES) - Uber's robotic vehicle project was not living up to expectations months before a self-driving car operated by the company struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona.

The cars were having trouble driving through construction zones and next to tall vehicles, like big rigs. And Uber's human drivers had to intervene far more frequently than the drivers of competing autonomous car projects.

Waymo, formerly the self-driving car project of Google, said that in tests on roads in California last year, its cars went an average of nearly 5,600 miles (8,960 km) before the driver had to take control from the computer to steer out of trouble. As of March, Uber was struggling to meet its target of 13 miles per "intervention" in Arizona, according to 100 pages of company documents obtained by The New York Times and two people familiar with the company's operations in the Phoenix area but not permitted to speak publicly about it.

Tech companies like Uber, Waymo and Lyft, as well as automakers like General Motors and Toyota, have spent billions developing self-driving cars in the belief that the market for them could one day be worth trillions of dollars.

The crash, which occurred Sunday night, was a major setback for Uber, which has been trying to improve its image since Dara Khosrowshahi replaced Travis Kalanick as the company's chief executive in a messy transfer of power last August.

On Monday, Uber halted autonomous car tests in Arizona, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto.

The Tempe Police Department said it was investigating the crash, and has not determined whether the car was at fault. A Volvo XC90 sport utility vehicle equipped with Uber's sensing technology struck Elaine Herzberg, 49, while it was going 40 mph (64 kph) in a 45-mph (72 kph) zone. According to the police, the car, with one safety driver and operating in autonomous mode, did not slow down before impact.

 

A video shot from the vehicle's dashboard camera showed the safety driver looking down, away from the road. It also appeared that the driver's hands were not hovering above the steering wheel, which is what drivers are instructed to do so they can quickly retake control of the car. Herzberg, pushing a bicycle across the street, appeared in the camera right before she was hit.