Skip to main content
Move the World.
Self-driving Uber Fatality: Video Shows Tech Failure & Human Error
A screen capture from the Uber's forward camera moments before impact. Credit: Uber

The first pedestrian was killed by a self-driving car this week, when an Uber in Arizona struck a woman crossing a highway at night. Many commenters rushed to blame Uber, the human backup driver, or the pedestrian, or dismissed the whole incident as a non-story. Now, video released by local police suggests that both the human driver and Uber's self-driving program failed that night.

The Video: The Uber had two cameras: one outside, facing forward, and one inside, recording the driver. On Monday, after reviewing the footage, the police chief told the media that the pedestrian had come suddenly "from the shadows right into the roadway," so that "it would have been difficult to avoid," and although "the Uber would likely not be at fault," she "won't rule out" charging the driver.

Tech Failure: The actual video doesn't look good for Uber. The pedestrian does seem to appear suddenly in the darkness — less than two seconds pass between the headlights first picking up the pedestrian's legs (already in the vehicle's lane) and the collision itself. But that shouldn't matter to a driverless car. Self-driving vehicles use radar and laser sensors, which don't depend on visible light, to "see" what's in front of them. The Uber car should have easily detected the pedestrian and the bike, even before they were directly in its path, and reacted to avoid them.

This is a very simple problem in self-driving technology, but, somehow, the system failed. It's not clear whether it was a problem with the hardware, software, or just a glitch, but it's a huge black mark for Uber. Under Arizona law, Uber could face criminal charges if the investigation determines they acted negligently.

Human Error: The backup driver also failed to prevent the accident, and the interior video shows her repeatedly getting distracted, scanning the road for a second and then looking down again. For several seconds before the collision, the driver was looking down at the car's center console. While the police chief might be right that an alert driver could not have stopped in time, Uber's backup driver wasn't in a position to see it coming anyway.

Several YouTubers have since filmed the same stretch of road at night with different cameras, and their videos show that the road is much brighter than in Uber's video, meaning that the driver should have had much more time to react.

Video of the crash scene shot with a better camera (bottom) shows that pedestrian was much more visible than showed in Uber's video (top).

Video of the crash scene shot with a better camera (bottom) shows that pedestrian was much more visible than showed in Uber's video (top). Credit: Uber / Brian Kaufman

Either way, loss of focus is a documented problem for drivers in autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles — after all, in the long term, the goal is to make it so that we don't have to pay attention at all. But it doesn't do much good to have a backup driver if they aren't engaged with their surroundings.

Solutions: If tech failures were to blame for this accident, it will be bad for Uber as a company. It might even turn people off from driverless cars in general for a while. But it could turn out to be a good thing for driverless cars as a whole, because technical problems can be solved. Software can be updated, redundant sensors can be installed, and diagnostic programs can be run to make sure that the car only drives when everything is operating correctly.

Human errors are a more challenging design problem, and it's tough to integrate people into a system that is designed to make them obsolete, but many new cars already come with camera systems that can warn drivers if their eyes close or look away from the road for too long. Augmented Reality or Heads Up Displays could also be used to keep drivers awake and engaged when the car is in self-driving mode.

Someday, it will happen that everything on a driverless car works exactly as intended, and someone will be hurt anyway. How we handle that will be a much bigger and more difficult social challenge that can't be addressed with a software patch. If we're not ready to deal with that yet—and it's not clear we are— perhaps it's a good thing that we can still focus on basic testing, technical adjustments, and regulations.

The Bottom Line: It's hard to interpret a single data point. It could be Uber is unlucky, or it could be that driverless cars aren't actually safer than human drivers yet. But either way, it's impossible for the technology to really improve without a lot more testing in real world conditions, and that means tolerating some level of risk, even if it turns out to be higher than the average driver today. The industry will have to figure out how to earn back the public trust, or else we will continue to suffer from tens of thousands of avoidable human-caused accidents while the technology to prevent them languishes in the scientific garage.

Up Next

Future of Cities
Paving the Way With Recycled Roads
Paving the Way With Recycled Roads
Future of Cities
Paving the Way With Recycled Roads
The world is facing a massive build up of waste. But this solution of recycled roads may pave the way for a cleaner future.

A recycled road has been paved with asphalt that contains the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of plastic bags, along with thousands of glass bottles and printer cartridges’ worth of waste toner. In addition to the sheer amount of recycled materials the process will divert away from landfills, these longer-lasting roads also help to reduce the carbon footprint of construction.

Future of Cities
Merging Nature and Sustainable Design: An Interview with Daan Roosegaarde
Daan Roosegaarde is a Dutch architect on a mission to create a more efficient and beautiful world through innovative, sustainable design.
Future of Cities
Merging Nature and Sustainable Design: An Interview with Daan Roosegaarde
From towers that create pockets of clean air to a luminescent bike path that glows like children's ceiling stars, Daan Roosegaarde's entire practice is centered around the beauty of living with nature and removing pollution from urban life.

From towers that create pockets of clean air to a luminescent bike path that glows like children's ceiling stars and windmills drawing lines of light across the sky, Daan Roosegaarde's entire practice is centered around the beauty of living with nature and removing pollution from urban life.

Future of Food
These Pioneers are Building the Sustainable Food Systems of Tomorrow
These Pioneers are Building the Sustainable Food Systems of Tomorrow
Future of Food
These Pioneers are Building the Sustainable Food Systems of Tomorrow
In a new Freethink original series, Michael O'Shea goes around the world to introduce us to the scientists who are working hard to ensure that we can feed our future world.

There are currently over 7 billion human beings alive on Earth --- and in 2050 the world's population will rise by almost 2 billion. That's a lot more mouths to feed considering that roughly 11 percent of the world goes hungry today. "in the next 40 years, we need to produce the same amount of food as we did over the last 8,000 years." Ernst van den...

Making a Difference
Can People with Autism Help Create Next-Generation AI?
Can People with Autism Help Create Next-Generation AI?
Watch Now
Making a Difference
Can People with Autism Help Create Next-Generation AI?
Daivergent is a new startup that hires people with autism to train artificial intelligence - and helps them start independent careers.
Watch Now

Meet Bryan Dai, the founder of Daivergent--a startup that hires people with autism to train artificial intelligence and helps them start independent careers. His journey began when his mother passed away, and he knew that he would be responsible for helping support his brother with autism. After people with autism turn 21, they often encounter the “support cliff,” after which they stop receiving many forms of government...

How San Francisco Residents Saved Local Businesses
How San Francisco Residents Saved Local Businesses
Watch Now
How San Francisco Residents Saved Local Businesses
An indie book store went from struggling to thriving with a new business model. Is it the future of retail?
Watch Now

Borderlands Books is the largest English-language sci-fi, mystery, and horror book store in the world. Mission: Comics and Art is a combination comic book shop and art gallery. Both were preparing to close up shop in a tough retail environment as costs rose. Alan Beatts called a community meeting of his customers. A new idea came out of it - selling store memberships. After an outpouring of support, he sold hundreds of...

Dispatches
Tesla and Uber Fatalities Show the Limits of “Semi-Autonomous” Cars
Tesla and Uber Fatalities Show the Limits of “Semi-Autonomous” Cars
Dispatches
Tesla and Uber Fatalities Show the Limits of “Semi-Autonomous” Cars
How can we make humans pay attention when a machine is doing our job for us?

How can we make humans pay attention when a machine is doing our job for us?

Challengers
Can This Startup Build the School System of the Future?
Can This Startup Build the School System of the Future?
Challengers
Can This Startup Build the School System of the Future?
AltSchool wants to build a new school system based on a highly personalized education model that any school could...
By Mike Riggs

AltSchool wants to build a new school system based on a highly personalized education model that any school could join.

Leslie Dewan on Learning from Failure
Leslie Dewan
Watch Now
Leslie Dewan on Learning from Failure
Dr. Leslie Dewan, CEO of nuclear power startup Transatomic, discusses the importance of entrepreneurs' ability to...
Watch Now

Dr. Leslie Dewan, CEO of nuclear power startup Transatomic, discusses the importance of entrepreneurs' ability to bounce back and learn from failure.

Challengers
Meet the Entrepreneurs Disrupting Industries and Changing the World
Meet the Entrepreneurs Disrupting Industries and Changing the World
Challengers
Meet the Entrepreneurs Disrupting Industries and Changing the World
Fast Company and Freethink bring you powerful stories of a new generation of entrepreneurs.
By Mike Riggs

Fast Company and Freethink bring you powerful stories of a new generation of entrepreneurs.