Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group cut corners on its self-driving project before it brought its autonomous vehicles to public roads across the United States for testing, The Information reports, citing numerous sources with knowledge of the matter. The firm was particularly negligent of self-driving simulations, software solutions that attempt to mimic real-life driverless vehicles and predict their behavior in traffic so as to identify potential issues before they could cause actual harm. Uber’s driverless car program was halted on a stateside level this March after a fatal Arizona crash involving one of its self-driving Volvo XC90 SUVs which hit a 49-year-old Tempe woman who was jaywalking and ended up succumbing to her injuries shortly after the incident.
Uber swiftly identified the likely cause of the accident – the software mechanism designed to ignore false positives, i.e. objects like plastic bags floating above roads. The solution was reportedly calibrated too aggressively, having instructed the SUB not to slow down or stop despite detecting the victim six seconds before impact, according to the results of a preliminary investigation of the incident. The car first identified the woman as an unknown object, then as a vehicle, and finally as a bicycle over that timespan, but made no attempt to make a late stop as it didn’t have access to the SUV’s emergency brake, a conscious design choice Uber is said to have made to make its autonomous ride less jittery compared to rivaling solutions.
While Uber had a simulation program before it started testing its vehicles on public roads, that part of the project lacked significant investments, two insiders claim. Following the Tempe crash, Uber committed significant resources to its proprietary driving sim solutions which were previously prioritized by Google’s Waymo and a number of other self-driving startups, as per the same report. The pressure to win the autonomous driving race further exacerbated the issue, leaving the simulation platform as an afterthought until the March accident. Uber‘s self-driving project is still suspended but is expected to make a return later this year, though its Arizona operations won’t be resumed and were already permanently shuttered, with some 200 employees being laid off as part of the move.