The race to be among the first companies to launch a fully self-driving car fleet appears to be picking up pace again as Volvo confirms a huge deal with Uber for up to 24,000 vehicles is back on following a delay. Yesterday’s news was that Google’s self-driving vehicle technology sister-company Waymo has become the first to secure a permit to test drive driverless vehicles without the safety net of a human operator. Now, following an self-enforced pause to test driving vehicles kitted out with Uber’s own self-driving technology system after a fatal accident earlier this year involving one of its test vehicles, Uber is picking up the pace again.
The Uber test vehicle, the same Volvo XC90 sports utility model to be ordered, was involved in the tragic accident in Tempe, Arizona, in March of this year when it struck a pedestrian who subsequently died of her injuries. While the pedestrian was attempting to wheel her bicycle across a 4-lane road and was not on a pedestrian crossing, Uber’s perception system got confused, first identifying her as an unknown object and then a bicycle. Her presence was detected as long as 6 seconds before the impact but the confusion of the perception system meant the driving system did not come to the decision to break until 1.3 seconds before impact, which was unfortunately too late. The emergency braking system had been disabled with the human safety operator expected to brake. He failed to do so in time as he had been looking down at the vehicles dashboard.
The imperfections still present in the latest technology in the world of self-driving were compounded by the human safety net not paying attention. Because the victim, Ms Herzberg was not crossing the road at an appropriate place, neither Uber nor the safety operator were criminally responsible for her death. However, the heightened concern around the safety of driverless vehicles meant that the incident was still a PR disaster for Uber and not the only one surrounding the company at the time, albeit the others were bad press around its corporate culture and management. The decision was taken to halt test driving.
While sensible in the context of a tragic loss of life, even if one that would arguably have been just as likely if not more likely if a human driver had been at the wheel of the Volvo involved, it has put Uber’s self-driving technology testing back several months. Now, however, while test driving has yet to restart, things are getting back on track and the deal struck for tens of thousands of Volvos that will be upgraded with Uber’s self-driving tech system is back on. Volvo CEO Håkan Samuelsson stated to the Financial Times that the first delivery of vehicles will now happen early next year as originally planned.
Volvo appears to be a favourite of the self-driving technology companies and has also recently struck a deal with China’s Baidu to develop cars for its self-driving programme built around its Apollo OS. They will be based on an all-electric model due for release in 2020 but are likely to be customised. China is expected to be the biggest self-driving market over the next decade or two and the Volvo-Baidu deal is the first time one of the big Chinese tech players with ambitions in the sector has forged such as strong relationship with a foreign auto manufacturer. Volvo has the stated ambition of becoming the “supplier of choice” for tech companies in the self-driving space.