Autonomous Car Accidents and Policy Implications – Part 5.3

In the last two sections of this article, we saw how an autonomous Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, and then how the AV industry decided to join the voices condemning Uber rather than go to their aid.  Technology does not develop in a vacuum, however, and as the days passed, the governor of Arizona began to get hit almost as badly as Uber.


By the 26th, 8 days after the crash and a week after press coverage began, the staunchly pro-industry governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, had taken all the beating he could stand. He suspended Uber’s permission to test their AVs in his State – a somewhat empty gesture since they’d already halted testing everywhere. The message was that he was looking out for Arizona’s citizens, but investigative reporting suggested that he was bracing for the inevitable revelations about his relationship with Uber. Barely two days after the executive order, The Guardian broke the story and got the evidence, and the news spread to major outlets.

Doug Ducey had been very friendly to Uber during their time in his State. A month after his swearing in in 2014, Governor Ducey met with members of Uber’s leadership and in April of 2015 he and the State legislature legalized ride-sharing throughout the State, overriding any city or town regulations. During the legalization ceremony, Uber even got the schedule changed so that one of their drivers introduced the governor instead of the other way around, though they failed to convince him to wear one of their shirts for the event. In June, Ducey had signed an executive order (with help from Uber) making it legal for them to test their AVs on public roads as long as they had a driver, and on university campuses without a driver. The EO also provided for an oversight committee. Uber wanted to have a representative, but didn’t get that. However, the committee was made up of 8 members all appointed by Ducey and only one of whom was an expert – a professor of systems engineering at the University of Arizona. The committee met no more than twice, and never took any noticeable actions.

In 2016, the governor’s office reportedly leaned on the Phoenix city council to allow Uber to pick up riders at Sky Harbor airport. The fact that Uber sent out a tweet thanking the governor for something that the Phoenix city council did when the plan was implemented suggests some truth to this. In addition, the following month Ducey himself tweeted a commercial written for him that praised Uber Eats and provided a link to their service. Uber then began testing its AVs in Arizona’s public streets – something it hadn’t actually begun until then – but chose to maintain publicity only for Pittsburgh, even going so far as to ask that someone ‘discreet’ be informed in the Arizona highway patrol. There was no public reporting requirement in Arizona law, so Uber was able to do its AV testing without informing anyone, and chose only to tell the governor’s office and have them decide who to pass the message to. They also offered office space to Ducey’s deputy chief of staff when the deputy chief visited California that same month.  The Arizona government disputed the Guardian’s assertion that they hadn’t informed anyone, pointing out that an article in August of 2016 in the Capital Times which stated that both Waymo and Uber were testing on Arizona roads. It is true that it’s hard to ‘keep it quiet’ if it’s in a newspaper, but it’s also true that the governor apparently made little of the 2016 tests in public statements.

December 2016 was when the California DMV made it clear that Uber was not welcome after it tested in San Francisco without a permit. When it chose to move all the AVs it had been testing in CA to AZ, Ducey issued a glowing public statement. He followed this up with a January state of the State which called CA’s regulations ‘nutty’ and promised to repeal even more regulations to make his State friendlier still to AVs. No mention was made that Uber had been testing in AZ for months prior to its CA fleet being added to the existing AZ fleet.

All of this was good news for Democrats in Arizona, and bad news for Uber. Little that they did was more than the type of behavior one would expect out of a high powered lobbyist, but it was fodder for opponents and competitors in the wake of this high profile death. One of the the core principles of influencing public policy is that the more you pull the pendulum your way, the further it will swing against you if things go wrong. It’s always important to plan your fallback positions to be at least as strong as your main thrust of policy influence, and Uber’s fallbacks were proving ineffective. Especially since Ducey seemed willing to throw Uber under the bus, but Uber had not appeared to plan out a counterthrust should their political allies turn on them. Speaking purely from my own opinion now, I’d say they ought to have had a policy document in their back pocket which would have provided tough regulations and a panopticon of oversight ready to be proposed the moment something like this happened.

The coverage also resulted in the Phoenix New Times – an alternative newspaper which has several strong editorial opinions on Arizona’s politics – to abandon its fairly balanced coverage in favor of a piece slamming the governor. Leading with what appears to be a picture of a car with a goblin head on it, the article harshly criticizes the governor, and some of their zeal spills over onto the AV industry. They point out that the accident rate of AVs is currently higher than that of conventionally piloted vehicles, somewhat disingenuously. It is true that – as they quote from a professor in AZ – conventional cars go 100 million miles annually per fatality versus AVs current rate of 10 million. It is also true that the number in 1925 was approximately 18 per hundred million VMT, almost 20 years after the Ford Model T was released. AVs may not be doing as well as we are now, but we took a long time to reach that 1 per 100 million. We didn’t even get to the 10 per 100 million until the 40s.

It’s fair to say that Uber got hammered far worse than Ducey in the overall press coverage. As the revelations about his communications with Uber came out, so did another round of articles about issues with the AVs and their drivers and even an attempt to settle with the victim’s family backfired. The previously mentioned New York Times piece had been the rumbles, and now the avalanche had arrived. Reports came out that drivers had felt deep misgivings about the technology and the testing routines of the company. While it’s true that in a company the size of Uber, it’s not hard to find someone with a negative opinion about something after a disaster occurs, the drivers’ allegations were very troubling, though in hindsight make perfect sense.

It was no secret that Uber had mostly swapped from taking fares to just trying to get as many miles on the systems as possible. It was a good publicity event when they had a driver and a technician on board to also pick up passengers, but once they went over to one driver they also decided that gathering data for the algorithm was the highest priority. To keep up public interests, some of the AVs still stopped for passengers, but most were out sucking up the data for the software. Hence why the driver in the crash was on their second loop around a predefined route. The predictability made the machines’ jobs easier, but added to the boredom factor for the drivers. They spent hours monitoring the system, alone and with little stimulation. Being on predefined routes, there wasn’t much new to see, and they had to remain alert in case the system encountered something it couldn’t deal with. As we saw earlier, visual and auditory warnings were lacking in several areas, so they had to watch the road. It’s one thing to do this with someone in the car to talk to, or through unfamiliar roads, but they had neither. The drivers say they were encouraged to get in x number of miles per day, though Uber contends there was no quota and an expectation that the drivers would take breaks.

Many articles also made mention of Uber’s difficulties with their AV algorithm. They weren’t going nearly as many miles per intervention as Waymo. Waymo’s engineers have gone on record to say that the distance an AV goes before a driver has to intervene is an unreliable metric for how well the AV works and tends to reflect how much the algorithm is being pushed than how good it is. That is to say, the lower the number, the more aggressive the development speed of the algorithm.

That said, they were also struggling with false positives causing frequent and uncomfortable braking and swerving. It makes sense as the reason why the emergency brake system had been disabled and the algorithm took so long to classify the woman with her bike. Uber was testing with a high threshold of confidence on their classifier and prioritizing a smooth ride during these tests, requiring the algorithm to be very sure before deciding that something in the road was an obstacle or person instead of a cloud of steam or a plastic bag. Both of these things have been cited as difficult things for the system to classify. In May reports suggested that investigators were leaning towards this as the ultimate cause of the crash, though since then the blame has shifted more towards the driver who appeared distracted.

Like with Tesla Autopilot, it was down to the driver to make sure the system was working safely at all times. The element of trust has been picked up in other publications and in interviews with the Uber AV drivers. It’s even more dangerous in a system that’s pushing into level 3 because the driver can safely tune out most of the time. Their miles per intervention must have also been improving because the drivers described going hours without touching the wheel – though no mention of the brakes. Uber’s AV may or may not have required frequent intervention in the daytime, but at night with little but the well known road itself and the traffic signals, a driver could go an entire 8 hour night shift without ever hitting a snag. It’s easy as to lose track and trust the AV implicitly as it would be if they were being driven by a human.

Uber announced that they were conducting a safety review in the beginning of May – shortly after the reports of the investigators’ belief that the algorithm played a major role. They’d resume testing of AVs on public roads ‘in a few months’, suggesting that this was when they expected their internal review to end. This did little to turn the media’s focus away from the disabling of automatic brakes and the algorithm’s apparent lack of ability to handle something that happens most nights in any city. The day before the release of the NTSB preliminary report that I used to lay out the events of the collision itself, Uber announced that they would not be doing any testing in Arizona, even after they resumed testing elsewhere. Pittsburgh remained a major hub of development and testing, and they remained hopeful that they could make arrangements with California to return to testing there. Coverage of the preliminary report was similar to coverage so far, pointing out the braking issue, and some including a mention of Waymo’s future plans to have ride-hailing AVs ready in AZ by the end of 2018.


Next time, we wrap up with Uber’s attempts to recover their competitive advantage of being first on the road, including how they found something they’d needed throughout the investigation – a scapegoat.

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