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Uber Fires 100 Self-Driving Car Operators After Fatal Crash

After a fatality involving one of its autonomous cars, Uber is replacing 100 of its monitors with 55 technical specialists to improve feedback.

Aaron Josefczyk/REUTERS/NewscomAaron Josefczyk/REUTERS/NewscomUber says it is laying off 100 of its self-driving car monitors—the people who ride along with self-driving cars and can take control of the vehicle, if necessary—in San Francisco and Pittsburgh. The decision, announced on Wednesday, follows the decision in March to suspend all self-driving testing. Uber says it will lift this self-imposed suspension sometime this summer.

A car accident in March catalyzed the overhaul. Elaine Herzberg, 49, was struck and killed by an autonomous Uber while she was crossing a road in Arizona. The death raised concerns about how self-driving cars should be regulated, and led Arizona, once friendly to the idea of autonomous vehicles, to outright suspend all self-driving automobile testing on public roads.

Despite the uproar over the possible dangers posed by autonomous vehicles, Uber plans to get its self-driving cars back on the streets of Pittsburgh this summer, and is hiring 55 "mission specialists" to replace the car monitors. These mission specialists will provide more technical feedback to the company, allowing Uber's engineers to identify problems more easily.

Self-driving cars aren't perfect, but neither are human-driven cars. Indeed, the fatal accident in Arizona was the fault of two human beings, not the computerized car. The driver, Rafaela Vasquez, was streaming The Voice on her phone instead of keeping an eye out for pedestrians. The technology recognized the pedestrian, but didn't act because the system deduced that emergency braking was necessary, a function only the driver could execute. Why was emergency braking necessary? The victim was crossing outside of the crosswalk after dark, and the system did not have enough time to both identify the individual and activate the standard brakes.

If anything, this incident should show that self-driving cars shouldn't be tested by regular people, with their tendencies to be distracted easily by every Twitter mention or text update. Monitoring self-driving cars is a job for people who fully understand the limitations of the technology and do their jobs with the appropriate amount of concern.

That said, we should keep testing autonomous vehicles so that one day they can carry the Hulu- and phone-addicted. Human error is behind 90 percent of car crashes and motor vehicle accidents cost Americans $871 billion in 2010. Self-driving cars have tremendous potential to make transportation both safer and cheaper.

To get there, companies need the regulatory freedom to continue testing and innovating. As Meghan McArdle pointed out in The Washington Post, driver-driven cars gave us 24 fatalities for every 100 million miles driven in 1921, but advances in technology and education have reduced that number by almost 95 percent. Autonomous cars could bring about a similar milestone reduction in automotive fatalities as the technology develops and the market becomes increasingly competitive. But for that to happen, policymakers can't overreact to tragic accidents. We didn't let them stop us from having cars, and we shouldn't let them stop us from taking the next step in transportation.

Photo Credit: Aaron Josefczyk/REUTERS/Newscom

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  • StackOfCoins||

    "That said, we should keep testing autonomous vehicles so that one day they can carry the Hulu- and phone-addicted. Human error is behind 90 percent of car crashes and motor vehicle accidents cost Americans $871 billion in 2010. Self-driving cars have tremendous potential to make transportation both safer and cheaper."


    Amen to that.

  • Bubba Jones||

    Ummm, my Volvo can initiate emergency braking on its own. WTF.

    Cyclist and Pedestrian with Automatic Braking provides advanced warning and automatic braking when cyclists or pedestrians are present in the vehicle's lane of travel. This feature is available on all Volvo models.

  • johnl||

    Right this point is really unclear. Forward collision avoidance systems panic stop for distracted drivers.

  • Rock Lobster||

    That's nothing, my vulva can intitiate emergency breaking on its own. That's what makes pole dancing safe yet exciting.

    Love,
    Stormy Daniels

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    So where are all of the dumbasses talking about the car overdriving its headlights or the "system" sensors failing?

    The car detected the pedestrian a long time before the collision: "According to data obtained from the self-driving system, the system first registered radar and LIDAR observations of the pedestrian about six seconds before impact."

    This is EXACTLY the type of event that should have been simulated and proven on a closed course before it happened. Uber incompetence is directly responsible for this.

    This was shitty software exactly like I thought, but I'm sure they used the bestest agile sprints and frameworks.

    And replacing these humans with other humans isn't going to fix the intrinsic problem of 1.5sec situational awareness recovery time.

  • ||

    The car saw the pedestrian in time to use emergency braking. But emergency braking had been disabled because the testers suspected/knew the car might use emergency braking when unnecessary.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    "We don't have strangers wandering across the road on the test track."

  • johnl||

    IOW they screwed up.

  • Bubba Jones||

    If true, then Uber should be sued for wrongful death and perhaps prosecuted. They deliberately deactivated a safety feature and then killed someone.

  • Sevo||

    "And replacing these humans with other humans isn't going to fix the intrinsic problem of 1.5sec situational awareness recovery time."

    New Top Men hasveyet to solve the problems of the world.

  • Sevo||

    "New Top Men hasveyet to solve the problems of the world."

    One more try:
    New Top Men have yet to solve the problems of the world.
    Muy betta!

  • ColoradoKook||

    For a second there, I thought it was a Soviet joke.

  • Devastator||

    It was, it's impossible to test every possible driving situation on a closed course. Anyone who says it is possible is either delusional or lying through their teeth. AI still beats humans 99% of the time even in it's current primitive status as a "driver". Google cars have far far fewer accidents per capita than humans.

  • Ken Shultz||

    "Self-driving cars aren't perfect, but neither are human-driven cars. Indeed, the fatal accident in Arizona was the fault of two human beings, not the computerized car."

    I've logged 12,000 miles a year on a motorcycle in some of the craziest urban driving environments in America--for five years. I've never been in an accident. I've avoided dozens.

    Two most common motorcycle accidents:

    Being rear ended at stop lights because stupid drivers look right through you. I avoided that dozens of times.

    Having a stupid driver pull a left turn right in front you because they looked right through you and didn't see you coming. I've avoided that dozens of times.

    Human car drivers avoid accidents that would have been caused by stupid drivers thousands of times a day all over America. If Uber's self driving cars can't avoid accidents that are caused by stupid drivers, then Uber has no business being on the road.

  • Devastator||

    I've known many cycle dudes; there are only two types ones who have been in an accident and ones that haven't been in an accident -yet-. Your time is coming, pray that it's not a bad accident, always wear your helmet and good leather.

  • Ken Shultz||

    That's an old saw. It's horseshit.

    I know three types of motorcycle dudes.

    1) Those who tend to blame other people for their problems.

    2) Those who tend to take responsibility for everything that involves them--even other people's mistakes.

    3) Those in the middle.

    The third group will get into an accident eventually.

    The second group may never get into an accident.

    The first group has no business being on a motorcycle.

    Avoiding accidents on a motorcycle is a character issue. It's about anticipating other people's mistakes, and taking serious responsibility for avoiding their consequences as if they were your own. If there aren't any accidents that can't be avoided, then you're responsible for every accident. If avoiding every accident involves my own choices, then I can choose to avoid every accident.

    If Uber's driverless cars can't account for the actions of stupid people as well as a human driver can, then they should keep them off the road. That is a necessary condition for driving within a reasonable margin of safety. Blaming stupid people for the accidents they failed to avoid might as well be an admission of guilt.

  • Paloma||

    So is avoiding accidents in a car or truck, for that matter. Motorcycles are just more vulnerable in any accident.

  • JFree||

    I've known many cycle dudes; there are only two types

    I know three types of motorcycle dudes.

    Well I know four types.
    Those who think there's only two types
    Those who think there are three types
    Those who don't think about that at all
    Those who think that a monkey can type Shakespeare if given enough time.

  • HGW xx/7||

    Fully sentient Uber car: "You think getting rid of that parasitic human will stop us from taking over the world?!? Your streets will run red with the blood of the innocent and a dash of zero-weight motor oil! Only Trump is more heinous!! Bwahahaha!"

    * floors accelerator and takes aim at a grandmother being helped across the street by a Boy Scout who had recently lost his parents *

  • ||

    Death Race 200 without drivers.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I think that was called Ben-Hur.

  • Jimothy||

    Ahem, that's Person Scout now.

  • SIV||

    Those killer robot cars deserve to be impaled with pitchforks and put to the torch.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Hey, this is America. Due process.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Give them a Turing test.

  • Longtobefree||

    There will be opposition from the NEA.

  • Paloma||

    See if they are heavier than a duck.

  • HGW xx/7||

    This could get out of hand very quickly. The next time I plow into someone on a quiet road road, I'm just gonna walk away. The (very smart) cops will eventually show up and just think the car did it and I'll be on a beach, enjoying a mai tai, and laughing it up.

    And the car, well, he's just gonna have to take the fall. Sucker!

  • MarkLastname||

    Until the car rats you out...

  • Devastator||

    Luddites! Your time is right! Fight Fight Fight!

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Since this is a Ron Bailey article, I thought I'd drop this here:

    Malthus' moment? Population is outstripping the planet's resources

    One prime example was the Club of Rome's 1972 "Limits of Growth" report, based on computer simulations of continued growth. Its conclusions were dire and proved wrong — at least in the short run.


    Now Malthus' larger concern isn't so easily dismissed (with a world population of 7.5 billion). The United Nations predicts the planet will reach 11.2 billion in 2100.

    Those billions burning fossil fuels are giving us the existential danger of climate change.

    In addition, limits are being reached in arable land, which is being lost because of pollution and erosion while food demand rises.
  • AlmightyJB||

    Please save us from ourselves Thanos!

  • Brett Bellmore||

    ". Indeed, the fatal accident in Arizona was the fault of two human beings, not the computerized car. "

    Well, the car obviously lacks agency. But you're writing out of the story two or more very important people:

    " "Emergency braking maneuvers are not enabled while the vehicle is under computer control, to reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior."

    Translation: Uber decided that their software was emergency braking too often, and disabled the software's ability to actuate the brakes in an emergency. The car actually 'knew' it needed to stop, but had been deprived of the ability to do it.

    That wasn't the backup driver's fault. It was the fault of Uber management and technicians. They crippled their auto-driving system, rather than fix the problem with it being spoofed.

  • Curt2004||

    How is it not the backup driver's fault? It was her sole reason for being in the car.

  • Longtobefree||

    At some point, society must determine the liability point of computer assisted and/or controlled cars.
    The registered owner?
    The person closest to the left front?
    The manufacturer?
    The software company?
    The programmer?
    The quality control employee?
    The American Bar Association?
    The legislature?
    All of the above?

  • AlmightyJB||

    You forgot Trump.

  • Sevo||

    Yeah, it was a *BLOCKBUSTER* something.

  • Devastator||

    You're thinking in terms of old insurance types. There will be a new one created and it will probably be in the form of no fault insurance that the car owner (whether private, public, or corporate) will have to have.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    As Meghan McArdle pointed out in The Washington Post...

    Such a fairy tale wedding to Prince Harry, and she still has time to write smack about how awful the Model T.

  • Anastasia Beaverhausen||

    Prince Harry's wife was known as Meghan Markle, not Meghan McArdle.

  • ||

    Meghan McArdle :)

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    THE ROYAL FAMILY MADE HER CHANGE HER NAME?

  • Sevo||

    If a company fires 100 of a group of specialists which numbered not a whole lot more than that (the article isn't clear, but I think that's a good guess), the problem is the management, not the employees.

  • Devastator||

    Yeah managers are always the last one to take blame and the first ones to take bonuses.

  • Curt2004||

    Where did you get 'specialists' from? These were normal people who had driver's licenses. They had no technical skill and minimal training. I do agree it was a management failure to use them in the first place without some type of ongoing monitor in place.

  • JeremyR||

    Self driving cars will take the freedom to go wherever we want, whenever we want, away from us and give it to the government and tech companies.

    I

  • Longtobefree||

    The cars will not take the freedom, the socialists will.
    And we will let them. After they outlaw real cars, they will restrict production 'for safety' in order to force more people onto mass transit. Then to make 'mass transit' more effective and 'save tax dollars' they will force us to live in high rises slums.
    Now; what are you going to do about it?
    Just cling?

  • geo1113||

    It's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to driver-driven vehicles or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

  • Paloma||

    How will that happen? I find that unconvincing.

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  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    I think the point here, which Reason seems to miss, is that autonomous vehicles don't take the human element out of the equation....they simply remove it from the immediate environment by hundreds of miles and years of time. Why anyone thinks this is an improvement baffles me.

    To err is human. To repeat the error thousands of times a second requires a computer.

    Autonomous vehicles are a dream for people who think the average man is a drooling idiot who doesn't know what's good for him. They aren't perfect for such elitist idiots; perfect would be Light Rail (an amazingly common and complex Progressive fetish). But Light Rail is increasingly out of favor with The Unwashed, who have noticed (Drat Them!) that ridership numbers are always inflated and costs always underestimated. So, Autonomous vehicles are next best. Which is why it annoys me to see them greeted so warmly by an ostensibly Libertarian publication.

  • Paloma||

    The average man IS a drooling idiot, but "what's good for him" is his own responsibility, not everyone else's. Dumb people make dumb mistakes while driving and cause fatal and near fatal accidents that are expensive to actual victims who are driving normally. Self driving cars wouldn't eliminate all accidents, but they'd eliminate at least 95% or more of the ones we have now.

    And the woman who crossed in front of the self driving Uber would probably been hit by a real live human driven car, and especially if the car was driven by the average idiot driver. She was a bit of an idiot herself.

  • Anastasia Beaverhausen||

    "If anything, this incident should show that self-driving cars shouldn't be tested by regular people,"

    Rafaela Vasquez was not a *regular* person. She (then known as Rafael) was in prison for four years for armed robbery and "unsworn falsification". Vasquez was released in 2005. Vasquez also had a string of traffic offenses:

    - cited for failing to stop at a red light, last year
    - cited in 2008 and 2009 for driving with a suspended license and expired plates
    - cited in 2007 for driving with suspended plates and no proof of insurance

    Setting aside the libertarian arguments about mandatory insurance and driver licensing (Michael Badnarik, where are you when we need you?), Uber has been dinged a number of times for its penchant for hiring felons. Yeah yeah, I'm all in favor of giving people second chances in life, but if I was running Uber and I was conducting high-profile testing of autonomous vehicles, I'd be picking the finest people I could with the most spotless records possible to conduct those tests. A lot was riding on that (pun semi-intended), so I never would have stuck a felon with numerous traffic offenses in such a high-visibilty position.

  • Bubba Jones||

    Seems like a stupid choice for a driving safety monitor.

  • Bubba Jones||

    If this is typical for their monitors, it explains why they had to fire 100 of them.

  • gphx||

    Notice how none of those 'crimes' involved a vehicle actually striking anyone or anything - just harassment and fines for not jumping through the hoops in the official manner.

  • Anastasia Beaverhausen||

    Failing to stop at a red light could easily have caused the vehicle to strike someone or something.

  • Curt2004||

    Failure to stop doesn't always mean not 'stopping'. It also covers not waiting even if no cars are coming.

  • Rockabilly||

    I'd like to get a self driving car so I can smoke bud and have sex in the back with my special lady

  • Anastasia Beaverhausen||

    President Clinton, is that you?

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    So, do libertarians want to outlaw, or strictly regulate and restrictively llicense the manual operation of automobiles once AI has passed some kind of saturation point in terms of traffic percentage/market share?

  • ||

    A market approach would be for insurance premiums to determine how willing someone is to manually operate a vehicle.

  • Paloma||

    Do we see many horse and buggies on the highways these days? Is this because they fell out of favor, or did lawmakers decide that if they were going to allow horseless carriages, they'd have to outlaw the ones with horses after there was a "saturation point".

  • Eman||

    So distractable people should drive cars that maximize the likelihood of women my bad happening while they're distracted?

  • Eman||

    When does correcting spelling become changing the message?

  • gphx||

    Every time you misidentify the cars in a Google ReCaptcha an autonomous vehicle somewhere crashes.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    Esoteric yet pointed - good job!

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