Waymo Scoffs At Uber, Bragging Its Autonomous Cars Could Have Saved A Human Life

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We were all stunned last week when it was revealed that an Uber self-driving Volvo X90 crossover struck a pedestrian crossing the street at night, killing her. While there was a human driver behind the wheel at the time of the crash, the Volvo was operating in fully autonomous mode when the accident occurred.

49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, who was walking across the street (outside of the crosswalk area) was hit, and died on the scene. Uber's public relations team and its CEO were quick to offer the condolences and vowed to cooperate with the police in the investigation. The company also took the precautionary measure of removing all of its autonomous vehicles from public roads -- for now. A video of the events leading up the impact with the Herzberg can be seen below:

In an unsurprising move, Waymo is throwing a bit of shade at its competitor -- a competitor that it recently settled out of court with over an allegation that Uber was using stolen trade secrets. Waymo CEO John Krafcik spoke at the National Automobile Dealers Association last week in Las Vegas, Nevada and he indicated that the fatal accident likely would have never occurred if a Waymo vehicle was placed in the same predicament.

“At Waymo, we have a lot of confidence that our technology would be able to handle a situation like that."

Chrysler Pacifica

Krafcik's claim seems to fly in the face of a statement released by the Tempe, Arizona Police Department shortly after the accident. "It's very clear this would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway," said Tempe police chief Sylvia Moir last week in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. "The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them. His first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision.

"I suspect preliminary it appears that Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident."

Where things get interesting, however, is with regards to what Moir said, and what the actual conditions were on the road at the time. A video posted above (taken with a smartphone camera) from a person driving the same stretch of road at night shows that while the Uber camera footage above indeed shows seemingly grim lighting conditions that would make it difficult to see, it is likely a result of poor camera image quality than the actual lighting conditions of the road at the time. As a result, it gives the skewed impression that the human driver didn't have time to react given that the Volvo's onboard sensors obviously didn't spot the pedestrian. The area where the impact occurs with the pedestrian can be seen around the 0:33 mark on the second video.

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Scene of the accident taken with a smartphone camera (top) versus Uber onboard camera (bottom). Image courtesy Duvel/The Car Lounge

Even more telling is the fact that the vehicle's onboard LIDAR and radar sensors should have picked up a person walking across the street -- even in poor lighting conditions including in the pitch black. Even more damning from the video posted near the topic of the article is that the human driver can be seen multiple times taking his eyes off the road looking down to the right, perhaps at a smartphone or one of the vehicle's central displays.

Given 1) the backup video footage of the crash scene, 2) the fact that LIDAR/radar should have been able to spot a pedestrian crossing the street, 3) that the driver never saw the pedestrian coming and 4) that the brakes were never applied (the vehicle was traveling 38 mph at the time of the crash) means that there's probably a lot more to this story that will come out as the investigation unfolds. This of course doesn’t change the fact that the person that died was in essence jaywalking, but that is something that human drivers (and autonomous vehicles) have been (and will be) dealing with for quite some time.