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.
Photo by Max Jeffrey

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.


So they are trying to minimize the cost in order to make their system practical? AMAZING! Musk doesn’t even think that lidar is necessary, let alone the quantity of sensors Uber uses.

Uber screwed something up, but this is a asinine attempt to show negligence.

Musk’s lidarless autopilot just killed another driver two days ago btw

But whatever, it’s just a human. They’re nothing but an empty resource to be used for libertarians like Musk.

No one knows if autopilot was even involved in that accident yet. Probably best to wait for the official reports before spewing opinions as fact.

I just wish we had the Balls of our parents and grandparents that made us what we are today.

1908- First passenger plane crash results in death… 2018 Flying is the safest mode of transportation.
1967- Apollo-1 burst into flames kills 3… Lands on the moon 2 years later.

Name a world changing invention and people died to make it happen or as a result. To deny the human need for advancement and the potential benefits is simply ignorant.

The strawman argument is one of the greatest human inventions.

I just wish we had the Balls of our parents and grandparents that made us what we are today.

This makes no sense.. The people who died in your examples were the TEST PILOTS, not random civilians.

Yes the people in my example were TEST PILOTS… but the point is that advancement carries inherent risk, and that being blinded to the potential improvement is ridiculous. The 90ish people who died today do to vehicle accidents were "random civilians" , what would you propose to decrease that number tomorrow?

You write as if you are ready and willing to sacrifice your life for the greater good.
Maybe someone else’s life, heh?

Your comments make you sound like you are making light of the death of a real person with a real family who was just trying to cross the street. She was not a test pilot, she was not in a car. According to everyone in the field that has reviewed the situation she should not have been hit. Even aside from programming and sensors, there was a person in that car that could have easily placed a foot on the brake.

Why sugarcoat it or pretend it’s indicative of some societal problem? They messed up, like Uber seems to always do.

Easy answer to your question, cut out Uber and let the myriad other self-driving companies continue their research and testing. You act like Uber is the only game in town. From this info it seems like they’re just the worst game in town.

Once you’re ready to face the real world, you’ll realize new tech is held to higher standards than old ones. Airplanes would not be a viable means of transportation if they were only slightly safer than cars. People would be terrified of getting on one. People trust airplanes because they are much safer than cars. Self driving is going to have to be much safer than humans before we trust it. And right now they have not been in all the random situations that we have and need more testing to get there. And then they get our trust.

Take off those rose tinted glasses and face reality: plenty of people back then were absolutely terrified by those airplanes. Plenty refused to fly in them. Exact same thing with spaceships except they are not open to the general public so that doesn’t matter and not really comparable either. Our parents and grandparents were scared of plenty of new technology, don’t kid yourself. Now, just like back then, people are wary of new tech. And just like airplanes, this will take time for people to get comfortable with.

Flying is the safest mode because they have added many, many failsafe mechanisms to the modern plane, not due to more "balls"

Its cool, Your human driver killed 90 drivers today, 90 drivers yesterday, and 90 more two days ago… btw.

But whatever it’s just progress.

The simple fact of the matter is, this was a time for UBER to shine. A perfect example of how a Self Driving car is better because it can see a human with a bike in the dark as well as the day, unlike a Human and have enough time to stop and not hit the idiot jaywalking and crossing a street in the complete darkness.

Yet it completely FAILED. it didn’t slow down or swerve. Let alone stop. This was not a person jumping right out in front of the car, hidden from site until the last second. Even with the 1 Lidar, the car should have easily seen this person.

Do you ever get tired of hating Elon Musk? An investigation was literally just opened for that accident so you don’t know what caused it. Not to mention the fact that Autopilot isn’t meant to be self driving at this stage.

Regarding the topic at hand, it even says in the article that the single lidar sensor should have seen the person crossing the street. Again, we don’t know what the cause is yet.

Autopilot is just a completely BAD NAME!!! Because look at how many people think it’s more than what it is. Which is just a fancy cruise control. People were so dumb as to climb into the back seat and have no one behind the wheel. At least they put a stop to that.

It doesn’t see or stop for Red Cameras. If there are no lines on the road, it’ll drive off. It’s really only for highway driving, not in town driving.

There’s a reason you’re supposed to hover your hands over the wheel when using it. because at any second, it could dive off the road. Seems to stressful to me, and I’d rather just drive and have my hands on the wheel.

I wonder how this is going to impact Tesla’s belief they can upgrade existing vehicles to level 4(?) autonomy without any need for LiDAR at all.
I’d guess there’s a lot of people who purchased vehicles on the back of that sales pitch.

I’m not sure there’s many people buying a Tesla specifically because it might one day be self driving, but who knows.

Theoretically the Tesla’s Radar could catch pedestrians in the front, since it’s mounted in the front of the vehicle, and can (by their claim) detect even underneath the car. It’s all going to come down to them proving that that’s reliable enough though, which they haven’t thus far.

Doesn’t need to be a lot of people. Tesla is charging extra for it, which could end up coming back to haunt them since there’s no guarantee they ever get self driving on those cars.

You may be buying a new car long before it ever is released. You just wasted money on a feature that never came. Like anything else, you should buy your car with the features it currently has, not what may come in the future.

Ok, but class action lawsuits have sued for less. You realize people have sued over being misled before? And in this case, Tesla promised something they may not deliver. Your comment isn’t relevant to the fact that if Tesla doesn’t deliver full self driving, they will be facing a class action lawsuit. As I said in other comments, I don’t believe the can pull off full self driving with their current tech so I’d never pay for the feature anyway.

If you have the money to buy a Tesla X today…. I hope you have the money to buy a Tesla Z tomorrow.

I’m a Tesla fan. I’d buy a model 3 in a few years. But I do not believe they can get to self driving without LiDAR and I do think they’re going to face a class action lawsuit for selling full self driving as a future feature on cars.

I just want one because it’s a good looking electric car.

Humans can drive without LIDAR. Why would a sufficiently intelligent system not perform at least equally to humans given the same visual input?
Granted, we are a long way away from a sufficiently intelligent system, but it should be possible. We might need general AI to do it without LIDAR, but I don’t see why it necessarily need LIDAR.

You kinda answered your own question.

We might need general AI to do it without LIDAR, but I don’t see why it necessarily need LIDAR.

That breakthrough could be 5 – 20 years away for all we know. I just know that right now, the biggest players in self driving all use LIDAR. And i think that’s because the tech we have right now needs it. So for now, all the cars need to have it.

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