Uber’s fatal crash and the incredible spin machine

So an Uber self-driving vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. It was bound to happen sooner or later, of course. Maybe there are some people out there who didn’t think so… but you can’t be someone who drives regularly and not believe all the random shit that happens out on the road will somehow not trip a self-driving car up every once in a while, right?

No, the incident itself comes as little surprise. But the series of events that have transpired since the event are somewhat frightening when you stop to think about it.

First, you have the Sylvia Moir, police chief in Tempe, Ariz., commenting: “I suspect preliminarily it appears that the Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident…”.

Oh, well phew, self-driving tech may be okay after-all according to – presumably – seasoned law enforcement. She continued: “it’s very clear it 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”.

As a driver, you can probably relate to being startled by something crossing your path on the road unexpectedly. So now the accident has been framed quite nicely for everyone: The accident was absolutely unavoidable, no matter who was behind the wheel. Everyone who reads the news headlines has now probably closed the book on this case and are happy, once again, to share the roads with self-driving cars who perform at least as well as us humans when it comes to avoiding collisions.

Next, less than a day later, we have dash cam video from the accident released to the public. The same public who has just been told by a police chief that the victim just suddenly appeared from the shadows. At first glance, the grainy, low FPS video seems to confirm chief Moirs’ claims – the cyclist does really seem to just pop into the frame at the last moment. Case closed, says the public. The video matches what the police chief said, so… Uber’s self-driving vehicles are safe!

The problem with the video, to a trained eye at least, is that it is very misleading. The camera’s low dynamic range paints quite a different picture than what the human eye would be seeing on that road. Unfortunately most members of the public probably don’t realize it – they only see video evidence that backs up the narrative so far: the crash was unavoidable.

In the coming days and weeks, investigators will pour over data collected by the Uber vehicle and hopefully determine why the Uber software systems failed prevent such a severe collision. And in my opinion, the system failed catastrophically. As a driver, when you see even just the faintest of shadows on the road in a poorly lit area, be they in the median or in an adjacent lane, at very least you’d cover the brakes and pay particular attention. There’s no indication the Uber vehicle did either of those things here. Never mind the human chaperone who was clearly distracted in this case.

But forget all the technical details for a moment. Are we maybe witnessing the great Uber spin machine in action here?

*1 day before Uber starts testing on public roads*

*Uber officials sit down for private meeting with chief Moirs*

Uber officials: “Let’s not beat around the bush here, one of our vehicles will probably be involved in a serious collision one day that will put someone’s life at risk. But more importantly, it may jeopardize the future of self-driving vehicles altogether. We need a plan to get ahead of this problem before it becomes a REAL problem.”

Police chief: “What did you have in mind…”

Uber officials: “First, make the accident seem as though it could happen to anyone. Make the public empathize with us – driving is hard work, eveyone knows that.”

Police chief: “Ok….”

Uber officials: “Second, release dash cam video that shows what a normal driver thinks they would have seen. This will further help the public empathize with us. There are no real expectations for safety at this point… other than we be at least as good as human drivers. After all, how do you think we’re out testing on public roads already?”

All: <Hearty chuckle>

Police chief: “Sounds reasonable, but why should I help you?”

Uber officials: <Remove stacks of bills from briefcase>

Doesn’t sound all that far fetched, does it?

 

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