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The video shows the driver looking down, appearing to chuckle, then switches to the exterior view as the Uber “self-driving” car plows into a pedestrian walking her bicycle across the street.

According to Reuters, the “safety driver” behind the wheel was distracted at the time of the fatal March 18 accident in Tempe, Arizona, allegedly streaming a television show from Hulu. The news report says the police report deemed the accident “entirely avoidable” and that the driver could face charges of vehicular manslaughter.

Uber recently ended its self-driving testing in Arizona after the crash. It says it has a strict policy prohibiting mobile device usage for anyone operating its self-driving vehicles.

According to a report last month by the National Transportation Safety Board, the driver told federal investigators she had been monitoring the self-driving interface in the car and that neither her personal nor business phones were in use until after the crash. (Complicating matters, the NTSB report found that Uber had disabled the emergency braking system in the Volvo to “reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior,” and the Uber safety system is not designed to alert the vehicle’s operator.)

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Daimler Trucks on Automation

Interestingly, just a week before this report came out, I was at Daimler Trucks’ Capital Markets & Technology Day in Portland, Oregon, where the company announced it is creating an Automated Truck Research and Development Center at Daimler Trucks North America headquarters.

In a session for reporters and investors focusing on automation, Peter Vaughan Schmidt, head of Daimler Trucks strategy, explained that the company is targeting Level 4 automated driving technology – essentially skipping Level 3 because it believes it’s a safer way to go.

Level 4 automated technologies allow the truck to take total control of the vehicle, including acceleration and braking, steering, and the ability to pull the vehicle off the road and stop if needed, all without driver assistance — but only on certain stretches of road well-suited for safe automated operation. Schmidt said this differs from Level 5 autonomous vehicles, which would be “truly driverless,” and from Level 3, which allows the driver to remove his or her hands from the wheel but still requires him to be in the seat and monitor the situation so he can take control at a moment’s notice in case of a problem. (Read more about SAE's automation levels here.)

In demonstrations of automated technologies in Europe, Daimler showcased a truck driver in the cab using a tablet while the truck navigated a German highway. But in Portland, Vaughan pointed out that in Level 3, the driver would need to be able to take over within seconds in an emergency situation, physically set aside the tablet, and perhaps just as important, make a fast mental switch. “So we aimed directly for Level 4.”

In 2014, Daimler demonstrated an autonomous concept truck where the driver was able to relax and use a tablet.
 - Photo courtesy Daimler Trucks

In 2014, Daimler demonstrated an autonomous concept truck where the driver was able to relax and use a tablet.

Photo courtesy Daimler Trucks

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the 2009 crash of Air France 447, where the perplexing errors of the pilots after the plane kicked off autopilot due to a malfunctioning airspeed sensor may have been due to “‘cognitive tunneling’ — a mental glitch that sometimes occurs when our brains are forced to transition abruptly from relaxed automation to panicked attention.”

You've got to think that the same situation would apply when it comes to automation in vehicles on the roads.

“Building a real autonomous trucking product is a tough game, and there’s no cutting corners,” Vaughan said. “It needs to be a 100% reliable solution, not 99.5%.”


Read Deborah’s previous blog posts about autonomous vehicles.

 

Author

Deborah Lockridge
Deborah Lockridge

Deborah Lockridge

Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology. 28 Jesse H. Neal honors.

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Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology. 28 Jesse H. Neal honors.

View Bio
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