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On March 18th, at 9:58 p.m., an Uber driver hit and killed a cyclist.

or...

On March 18th, at 9:58 p.m., a self-driving vehicle hit and killed a cyclist.

The media likes the second version; it sounds scarier. I like the first one; it is actually true. However, neither one tells the whole story.

Uber likes self-driving vehicles, as they are a potential way to avoid paying drivers. At this time, they were working on a system where they would test self-driving cars, but only with a driver behind (but not touching!) the wheel.


To keep the cars from acting erratically in traffic, they were programmed not to brake in emergency situations.


So, second time around the test loop, test driver Rafaela Vasquez got bored, and decided to watch some Hulu on her cell phone (it was The Voice). The car saw an unidentified moving object. It took a couple seconds, but it finally figured out that it was a cyclist walking their bike across the road. At 1.3 seconds before impact, the car alerted Vasquez to brake. At impact the car was travelling at 39 mph; the pedestrian/cyclist, Elaine Herzberg, died at the hospital that night. Vasquez started to brake less than one second after the impact, and immediately called 911.

While braking distances depend on multiple factors, braking to a full stop from 40 mph takes ~76 feet. By my calculations, the car had ~74 feet between it and Herzberg when it made the decision that emergency braking was necessary.

A self-driving car would have hit, and bruised, a pedestrian. Uber and distracted driving killed a pedestrian.


National Transportation Safety Board report

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