Uber scaled back the number of sensors on its self-driving cars: report

As we wait for the first report from the National Traffic Safety Board on the fatal Uber crash in Tempe, Arizona, new details about the ride-hailing company’s self-driving program continue to trickle out. And as you would expect, it’s more bad news.

Most notably, Uber reduced the number of LIDAR sensors on its vehicles when it shifted from its prototype Ford Fusion sedans to the Volvo XC90 SUVs, Reuters reports. And new emails obtained by The Guardian highlight the chummy relationship between Uber and Arizona governor Doug Ducey — possibly at the expense of public safety.

Let’s look at the Reuters story first. Interviews with former Uber employees reveal that the company’s haste to get its cars on public roads resulted in some cut corners, most notably scaling back the number of sensors used to detect objects on the road. Uber’s Ford Fusion prototypes, which have since been phased out, had a spinning 360-degree LIDAR sensor on the roof, in addition to six other LIDAR sensors mounted on the front and rear of the vehicle. After transitioning to the Volvo XC90s, though, Uber dropped that number down to just one roof-mounted LIDAR.

And that presented a problem, according to Reuters:

In scaling back to a single lidar on the Volvo, Uber introduced a blind zone around the perimeter of the SUV that cannot fully detect pedestrians, according to interviews with former employees and Raj Rajkumar, the head of Carnegie Mellon University’s transportation center who has been working on self-driving technology for over a decade.

Experts who have viewed the video footage of the crash in Tempe agree that Uber’s sensors should have spotted 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg crossing the street. It is unknown what role the vehicle’s sensors and cameras played in the death of Herzberg. A spokesperson for the NTSB said its first preliminary report would be out in a few weeks.

Autonomous vehicles operated by Waymo, the former Google self-driving unit, have six LIDAR sensors, while GM’s Cruise vehicles feature five. In a statement to Reuters, an Uber spokesperson said, “We believe that technology has the power to make transportation safer than ever before and recognize our responsibility to contribute to safety in our communities. As we develop self-driving technology, safety is our primary concern every step of the way.”

Meanwhile, new details have emerged about Arizona’s aggressive courting of Uber’s self-driving tests, and vice versa. According to emails obtained by The Guardian, Gov. Ducey okayed Uber’s request to test its vehicles on public roads in August 2016 without informing the public. Uber didn’t announce that it would begin offering rides to Arizona residents until February 2017. Moreover, the governor’s unabashed enthusiasm for Uber’s self-driving program didn’t go unrewarded.

They reveal how Uber offered workspace for Ducey’s staff in San Francisco, praised the governor lavishly, and promised to bring money and jobs to his state. Ducey, meanwhile, helped Uber deal with other officials in Arizona, issued decrees that were friendly to the company, tweeted out an advert at the company’s request, and even seems to have been open to wearing an Uber T-shirt at an official event.

A spokesperson for the governor rejected the notion that his office wasn’t transparent about Uber’s testing. Local police departments were informed that Uber’s vehicles were on the road, and thanks to the state’s regulations, there was no requirement to inform the public about the testing.

Earlier this week, Ducey suspended Uber from testing its autonomous vehicles on public roads, in light of the dash camera footage of the fatal crash released by the Tempe Police Department. An Uber spokesperson declined to comment on the story.

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