Investigation finds Uber brakes disabled

A federal investigation has found that a self-driving Uber SUV that hit and killed a pedestrian in March had its emergency braking system disabled.

The preliminary report, issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), stated that while the vehicle’s guidance system had spotted the woman about six seconds before impact, emergency braking manoeuvres were not enabled in order to ‘reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behaviour’. The responsibility for hitting the brakes was left with a safety driver.

The findings suggest that even though Uber’s computers concluded the car would hit the pedestrian 1.3 seconds before impact, or about 82ft (25m) away, it also didn’t alert the driver who was looking away from the road at the time, according to NTSB.

The Volvo XC90 SUV involved in the collision was also equipped with a set of sensors that could activate an automated braking system, which Volvo calls City Safety. The vehicle is also capable of detecting driver awareness. However, the systems were disabled whenever the SUV was being operated in self-driving mode, according to NTSB.

‘That seems like a serious design omission,’ Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Law, who studies autonomous vehicle regulations. ‘I can understand disabling Volvo’s systems, but it sounds like a lot of tasks were placed on a single safety driver.’

The report comes as Uber decides the next steps for its self-driving car programme. The company stopped its public autonomous testing after the collision and since has shut down its self-driving car programme in Arizona, adding that it planned to restart testing in Pittsburgh this summer. That news sparked Pittsburgh’s mayor to respond that serious changes were needed to its autonomous programme before it could get back on the road.