Fresh questions have emerged about Uber's self-driving technology and safety practices on the eve of a federal meeting at which the probable cause of a landmark crash likely will be determined.
Two people with firsthand knowledge of the company's self-driving system say company officials removed a key fail-safe from test vehicles months before one of them struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz.
The fail-safe, an internally developed feature called Reflex, was shelved because some members of Uber's Advanced Technologies Group, or ATG, thought it triggered too many braking events at a time when the program was under pressure to show progress in developing software, said the sources, who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak on the matter.
Reflex provided an independent cross-check on the main self-driving systems by using short-range radar signals to sense imminent hazards directly in the path of vehicles. The sources, who had roles within ATG, believe that had it been enabled in Uber's Volvo XC90 fleet, Reflex would have mitigated the collision that killed Elaine Herzberg — and possibly prevented it.
"It was designed to prevent exactly this sort of crash," one source said.
The existence of Reflex has not been disclosed publicly, nor is it referenced in any of the 43 documents and 439 pages of information the National Transportation Safety Board has released in its public docket on the March 18, 2018, incident, the first fatal crash in history involving a self-driving vehicle.
Asked about Reflex, a spokesperson for Uber said Friday, Nov. 15, the company could not comment pending the ongoing NTSB investigation.
With NTSB investigators set to meet Tuesday, the two sources, plus a third person who also held a role within ATG, spoke to Automotive News because they were concerned that investigators did not yet have a comprehensive picture of Uber's safety capabilities and culture. Further, they worried that lessons learned from the crash have gone unheeded.