Two US senators press companies for details about self-driving car programs

Jun 1, 2018, 4:24 AM | Updated: Jun 21, 2018, 2:27 pm
In this March 20, 2018, photo provided by the National Transportation Safety Board, investigators e...
In this March 20, 2018, photo provided by the National Transportation Safety Board, investigators examine a driverless Uber SUV that fatally struck a woman in Tempe, Ariz. The fatality prompted Uber to suspend all road-testing of such autos in the Phoenix area, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto. (National Transportation Safety Board via AP)
(National Transportation Safety Board via AP)

PHOENIX — In response to a fatal accident in Arizona earlier this year, two U.S. senators are pressing companies for details about the safety of their self-driving vehicle programs.

Last week, after the National Transportation Safety Board released its preliminary report about the accident in a Phoenix suburb, Sens. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) sent letters to 26 automobile and technology companies working to develop self-driving cars.

The recipients included Waymo, which has a prominent testing program based in Chandler, and Uber, whose autonomous vehicle struck and killed woman in Tempe in March.

“This latest fatality has raised many questions about the processes companies have in place to guard public safety when testing this type of technology on public roads,” the senators wrote.

The letter asks 10 questions about the companies’ testing procedures and safety protocols and whether they’ve made any changes since the fatality in Arizona.

Waymo told the website Ars Technica it was reviewing the letter, while Uber said it had received the letter and was planning to respond.

While the federal government has voluntary guidelines for companies that want to test autonomous vehicles, many states, including Michigan and Arizona, have taken a largely hands-off approach, hoping to gain jobs from the new technology.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey used light regulations to entice Uber to the state after the company had a shaky rollout of test cars in San Francisco. Arizona has no reporting requirements.

After the Tempe accident, Uber suspended its testing nationwide. Last week, the company announced it was winding down its Arizona program, but its self-driving cars would return to Pittsburgh this summer.

The NTSB report found that the self-driving system of the Uber SUV that killed Elaine Herzberg first observed the 49-year-old woman six seconds before impact.

According to data obtained from the self-driving system, it first identified her as an unknown object, then a vehicle and then a bicycle before determining that emergency braking was needed.

However, Uber told the NTSB that emergency braking is not enabled while the vehicle is under computer control to reduce the potential for erratic behavior, and the operator is relied on to take action after an alert is sent.

The operator wasn’t sent an emergency braking alert until 1.3 seconds before the accident.

The operator engaged the steering wheel less than a second before impact and began braking less than a second after impact, the report said.

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Two US senators press companies for details about self-driving car programs