In the last three sections of this article, we followed the events of the first autonomous vehicle fatality involving a pedestrian. We covered 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. In the third section, both the governor of Arizona and Uber themselves were attacked repeatedly and their relationships exposed as close, to say the least, with preferential treatment seeming to be the standard practice for Governor Ducey. We end here with the advent of the preliminary report which I used to lay out the events of the night, and how Uber turned the situation around to the point where they are now back to testing on public roads – albeit with fewer cars and drivers than before.
The preliminary report is where the driver’s culpability started to surface again in media reports. At first, it was just a hint buried in the report that the local media outlets – always on the lookout for more details about the Tempe crash – found and ran with. The report’s suggestion wasn’t anything particularly new, just the first official confirmation that the AV driver was responsible for braking – and thus responsible for anything that happened if the car didn’t brake – in an emergency. It was the first hint, and the beginning of a turn in the investigation that has given Uber a slim chance of salvaging the tragedy and going on with development.
It was the Tempe police department that uncovered that the driver had been streaming Hulu on her phone at the approximate time of collision. This discovery completely changed the interpretation of what the internal camera had captured. Instead of looking at the AV interface as the driver had claimed at the time, it appeared that she was watching a show on her phone. All of a sudden the blame and media attention focused squarely on the driver, especially since the investigations suggested that had the driver braked when the pedestrian became visible, the pedestrian would have made it to the other side of the street before the car could hit her.
Uber grabbed the opportunity. They stressed the training where operators of their AVs spend three weeks on a closed course learning how to safely operate the car, and also their strict policy of firing anyone found to be using their phone while driving the car. This was their opportunity to improve their training and safety culture while placing blame on an individual, and thus being able to take action without admitting being at fault.
Slight problem: the internal camera. One of Uber’s main ways of determining whether a driver was distracted was random spot checks of the internal camera to see what the driver was doing during a test. In this crash, the internal camera was not only reviewed by Uber, but by hundreds of media outlets, their readers, and authorities. At no point before the Hulu stream records were obtained was the driver accused of using her phone. If one driver could make it look like they were monitoring the AV interface when in actuality watching a video on their phone, then how many other drivers were on the road doing exactly the same thing? Uber wasn’t out of the woods yet, and they evidently decided that they needed to take more drastic action than a safety review.
Less than a month after the Hulu records were published, Uber fired almost all of its AV operators. Those drivers were put at the head of the line to re-apply for the job of ‘mission specialist‘ – although there were only 55 mission specialist positions open as opposed to the 100+ AV drivers who’d just been laid off. The plan appeared to be to scale back testing to the closed tracks again, with the mission specialists being better trained and more technically focused than the drivers. The change would mean focusing more on testing with specific circumstances and issues rather than sending the AV out into the wild to find problems. The mission specialists would understand their vehicles a lot better, and the cars themselves would be intensively tested in controlled conditions before a limited revival of testing on public roads.
The clock was ticking, though. Waymo and GM plan on having their AVs on the road and providing taxi services later this year and in 2019 respectively, while Ford is aiming for a 2021 rollout. Uber was first to market, but the setback here was threatening to lose them that advantage. Waymo has the backing of Alphabet and GM is a well known and trusted brand. If they hit the road and made a big success before Uber had captured market share, Uber might get pushed out completely. Ever the company best known for fast and decisive action, Uber had its mission specialists on the roads of Pittsburgh less than two weeks after the restructure. The closed course shakedown appeared successful; the AVs once again had collision avoidance and emergency braking controlled by the computer, and new driver attentiveness monitoring was reportedly integrated with existing systems. They’d also decided that it was time to focus their own attention. They shut down their autonomous truck division, likely shifting all technical work in that group to their cars. As of now, Uber appears to be determined to regain its competitive advantage of being first on the ground and first into people’s hands. The public awareness of the Tempe fatality is fading from the public’s interest, which is good for Uber’s executives, given all that they have to deal with. Just in the last couple weeks, they’ve been facing regulation in New York City and in Spain which would cap the number of cars they’re allowed to have on the streets. The changes to their operations resulting from being the first AV company with a pedestrian death attributed to their system are likely to continue.
For now, it appears as if the worst thing the industry as a whole faces is federal gridlock and no surety as to what the Department of Transportation will eventually settle on as regulatory status quo nationwide. That could easily change as more companies field much larger fleets with the rollout of AV taxis across the country. One death is a tragedy and a fluke; two or three could swing the pendulum the other way, and given how favorable regulations have been so far, the pendulum could sweep a lot of companies off the board completely. A recent survey shows declining trust for AVs among consumers, This suggests that the negative news surrounding AVs has had an effect. The industry will have to work hard to regain that lost ground, and if Uber wants to be first to market, they’ll have the responsibility of working hardest at proving that their technology is beneficial and dependable. Otherwise companies with better reputations like Waymo or more trust like GM will take away that market share, and Uber’s strategy of being first will have been what ends their ambitions of being at the forefront of public AV use. If consumers aren’t convinced that AVs are necessary and safe, then regulators may decide to tighten restrictions on them rather than face the same kind of backlash governor Ducey did.