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What does the fatality caused by a self-driving Uber mean for the Automated Driving scene?

  • Uber under criticism for technology failure that marked the first fatality caused by a vehicle in Automated Driving mode;
  • The suspension of testing operations in Arizona is a significant step back for Uber which puts its proprietary autonomy system at risk;
  • Arizona government’s relaxed AV testing laws raise concerns but DOT confirmed there will be no changes to regulations;
  • USA’s AV regulatory approach is characterised by lack of harmonisation among states and lack of capability to enforce robust safety standards;

Regardless of the root cause for the failure of Uber’s self-driving technology testing on public roads, another life has been lost which makes the step towards an accident-free future seem farther away.

The fatality is a massive blow for Uber, which had to shut down its autonomous ride-hailing trials in Arizona amid safety concerns, settle a lawsuit filed by the victim’s family and deal with the criticism over its self-driving technology failure.

The tragic failure of system to either detect, classify the object as a pedestrian or react to the pedestrian has raised questions over the capabilities of Uber’s ADS given that less advanced systems already fitted in modern cars, such as Automated Emergency Braking with Pedestrian or Cyclist detection, could have helped mitigate or prevent the collision.

While the investigation to determine the root cause is still ongoing by the NTSB, the problem could potential be on the software side, which in essence decides if a response is necessary to detected and classified object.

The first death related to a pilot self-driving technology could also have adverse consequences to consumer acceptance since the main argument for the switch to higher autonomy is the capability of Automated Driving Systems to deliver enhanced safety within the Operational Design Domain comparing to humans.

Uber’s Autonomy programme is at risk which could impact its profitability

In 2015, former CEO Travis Kalanick expected Uber’s fleet to be driverless by 2030. “The service will then be so inexpensive and ubiquitous that car ownership will be obsolete”

Developing a driverless system to substitute drivers and increase vehicle utilisation is critical to Uber’s profitability

Uber had estimated net revenue of $5.5 billion but recorded loses of $2.8bn in 2016.

Driverless autonomy is critical for Uber’s business model since the cost of driver accounts for around 70-80% of net revenue. Substituting drivers with a driverless system could decrease operational cost and help the company become profitable. It can also help Uber beat the competition by allowing to lower its cost service, which can even free in some cases e.g. if subsidized from partners such as Deliveroo.

That is why the company’s Advanced Technologies Group has been focused on developing its own autonomous sensing platform and control software over the last 2 years while its Otto division is also working on self-driving trucks. In Jan’17, Uber announced it will open an autonomous vehicle research center in Wixom, Michigan which we will be focused on integrating Uber’s technology into automakers’ vehicles.

What does the fatality caused by a self-driving Uber mean for the Automated Driving scene? 1

…but testing self-driving Ubers, even with safety operators, has faced lots of setbacks

Uber started its autonomous ride-hailing trials back in Sep’16 in Pittsburgh using a fleet of Ford Fusions fitted with its own ADS. However, it has faced a series of regulatory and legal issues.

Uber's hardles

Uber’s viability is threatened

Halting testing operations is a significant backstep for Uber, threatening to delay its roadmap to substitute drivers with a driverless system. Given how critical Full Automation is to the profitability of Uber’s business model, we expect further developments in the near term to strengthen its open AV platform and diversify in order to secure its viability.

The company’s valuation has already decreased dramatically over the last 2 years amid a series of cultural controversies and legal battles which have been draining resources and put its autonomy programme under risk. According to reports in Jan’18, SoftBank successfully purchased hundreds of millions of shares of the company at a $48 billion valuation, a 30% discount from the $69 billion that private investors valued the company at in 2016.

USA regs

Despite calls for more regulatory scrutiny, AV regulatory approach is unlikely to change 

In the U.S, there is no Federal regulation restricting SAE L3-5 deployment, only non-binding guidelines. The Federal responsibilities are: safety standards, compliance, recalls and public education while the States are responsible for testing permits, law, enforcement and licensing.

This makes the U.S. a favourable environment for AV deployment. However, the U.S. follows a stand-alone strategy and shows lack of cooperation at international level – Europe, Japan and China are counterparties of the UNECE-Regulation No79 which sets the technical requirements for Type Approval of automated steering required for higher levels of autonomy.

The 2 fundamental problems arising from the current U.S. AD regulatory landscape

First, inconsistencies between state policies are restricting standardisation across the country. ‘’As a result carmakers cannot conduct credible tests to develop cars that meet the different guidelines of 50 US states’’, according to Volvo’s CEO. Second, lack of standardisation or conflicting state laws inhibit innovation and slow down road safety benefits. For instance, California has established its own certification process, Arizona does not require specific permits and data recording, while Michigan allows

Arizona government’s relaxed AV testing laws raise concerns but DOT confirmed there will be no changes to regulations

Arizona’s regulatory framework for testing AVs is one of the most favourables which has led to many companies establishing operations there. Specific permits aren’t required as long as the vehicle meets all applicable motor vehicle laws and there is a licensed driver either in the car or monitoring it remotely. Operators do not need to file detailed public reports on incidents, as they do in California, but companies are expected to submit information to help authorities develop a protocol on how to interact with the vehicles.

However, testing and deployment has been made possible by the Governor’s Executive Order, which means that testing and deployment are subject to the Governor’s interpretation.

Arizona DOT confirmed that there will be no changes to regulations for autonomous cars despite the accident. Possible ban of AV testing and sales in Arizona would threaten deployment the deployment of robo-taxis as well as L3 in private cars in the most favourable state to AVs.


Consumer faith on AVs is still fragile over safety, security and ethical issues 

The first death related to a pilot self-driving technology could also have adverse consequences to consumer acceptance since the main argument for the switch to higher autonomy is the capability of Automated Driving Systems to deliver enhanced safety within the Operational Design Domain comparing to humans.

But other companies testing Highly and Fully-Automated Driving technology use different platforms and/or software and hardware. Regardless, it is very difficult for consumers to understand the technical differences of the different ADSs. Consumer education is needed to guide consumers with regards to their responsibilities and the limitations of the ADSs for private use.

Also, deployment for private cars will follow a different technological roadmap, coming much later than Automated Mobility on Demand (AMoD).

Amid public scepticism for Level 3-5, OEMs need to prove it improves road safety and tackle customer confusion


Managing vehicle-related Cyber threats is paramount for physical safety 

While carmakers strive to roll out more and more Connected Cars and models equipped with Automated Driving functions in an attempt to gain competitive advantage and enhance costumer-loyalty, they face an important challenge. To ensure that these new types of modern vehicles guarantee not only safety but also security and data privacy. This is because Connected Cars, which are essentially collectors and distributors of information, need robust design architecture that guarantees network security in addition to multiple layers of operational and peripheral security to protect against cyber-attacks.

Some security solutions are already deployed in the field but so far no regulation exists to mandate Automotive Cyber Security detection, prevention and counter-measures.

Cars with different levels of autonomy will coexist which makes the liability framework more complex

Waymo is expected to launch its driveless mobility service later this year. However, driverless capabilities for private cars will lag behind AMoD timeline due to the component cost for use in series production and other differences in the business models.

AD Penetration in USA 2017 vs 2021

What is more, there will be a long transition time until all cars become autonomous. When manually-operated cars and driverless cars co-exist, further coordination is needed to guarantee an accident-free world, such as V2X. This means that accidents occuring when the vehicle is in Automated-Driving model might continue to exist -but risks can be mitigated- which makes the determination of liability even more complex. Also ethical issues might arise.

Data recording will help determine liability when an accident occurs at self-driving mode

For private cars, we expect that many, if not all carmakers, will opt to equip their vehicles with Automated Driving-Event Data Recorders, which will record data while the ADS is active, regardless of it not being mandated in the US until 2020-21. This data recording will be mandatory in the UN-ECE and will help identify liability when a crash occurs while the vehicle is in Automated Driving mode.

Read more insights

For an in-depth analysis of the Autonomous Driving regulation in major car markets and how it will affect the AD roadmap of leading carmakers read our report Regulatory guide to Autonomous Driving, Automotive Cyber Security & V2X.

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