On March 19th, 2018 a woman by the name of Elaine Herzberg was struck and killed by one of Uber’s self driving vehicles in Arizona. The media has approached this topic from a variety of angles, but the primary focus has been on explaining what exactly happened. The police chief initially reported the pedestrian jumped out in the street at the last minute making it impossible to avoid. Others said this was implausible considering Elaine had a bicycle in her possession. Finally, a video was released from the cars dash cam which showed a safety driver in the car looking down and away from the road repeatedly just before impact.
Uber failed in three ways to insure something like this would not happen. Clean Technica reports Uber reduced the number of LiDAR units from 7 to 1 per vehicle in 2016 creating blind spots. One such blindspot may have prevented the car from perceiving Elaine as a human being to be avoided at all costs. Uber failed when they began sending single drivers out instead of couples for test drives of their vehicles. Even if the driver had not seen or anticipated a pedestrian then surely another set of eyes on the road would have been helpful. Lastly, Uber failed when they hired Rafaela Vasquez as a safety driver. Ms. Vasquez is a two time convicted felon in the state of Arizona which certainly does not preclude her from the workforce, however, a safeguard position such as this is questionable. Uber was striving to move past needing a driver intervention within thirteen miles of road. So the drivers they hired were certainly not sitting idly for hours on end.
I switched to the past tense to describe Uber’s failings not because the company apologized, said they would take stock of their actions, and change but because of the recent fallout. Arizona banned Uber’s self driving car program from operating in the state any longer, Uber opted to not renew their license with California to run an autonomous vehicle program, and their entire fleet is grounded for the time being.
Why would Uber take these risks? Money. Eric Meyhofer, the head of Uber’s autonomous driving efforts, said the question isn’t whether Uber can make a self driving car, but if they can do so quickly and cheaply enough to solve its revenue problems. Corner after corner was being cut in order to reduce the 2.8 Billion dollars it lost last year. By contrast, Lyft President, John Zimmer, characterizes his company as caring about the cities they operate in, the people they service, and the people that work for the company.
Part tragedy, part comedy, The New Yorker has certainly not missed the irony of their most recent article on Dara Khosrowsahi, Uber’s new CEO charged with cleaning up company culture. The accident in Arizona receives a very small entry at the end of the article as if the actions don’t speak louder than the words, and history of one man in a massive company.
We have deleted Uber from our phones. We believe consumers make a choice with their dollars, and we are taking a firm stance with ours. Uber may be redeemable, and perhaps Dara can actually right the ship, but for now we refuse to support a company that has disenfranchised and humiliated women within their company, and shows such relentless disregard for ethical practices just to continue their growth. We hope you consider exactly what that next UberPool is worth to you and everyone else in the global ecosystem.