Uber secretly ditched a policy of having two engineers pilot its self-driving cars and replaced them with ‘safety drivers’ who receive just three weeks of training, DailyMail.com can reveal.
The move to water down the level of supervision of its fleet of autonomous Volvos was never publicized to authorities, its investors or the public in the cities where Uber is trialing the cars.
It has also insisted the ‘safety drivers’ – who include a felon and a former Pizza Hut supervisor – sign gag orders stopping them from talking about what happens when they are ‘pilots’ in the cars.
None are required to have an engineering or technical background, although all must pass a manual driving exam, submit to Uber’s background check and complete a 21-day training course.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators examine the self-driving Uber vehicle involved in the fatal accident in Tempe
Homeless woman Elaine Herzberg (left), 49, died on March 18 in Tempe, Arizona, after being struck by a gray Volvo XC-90 SUV piloted by Rafaela Vasquez (right), 44. Vasquez, a convicted felon, told police she had attempted to brake but was unable to avoid the mother-of-two
The truth about who is really behind the wheel emerged as DailyMail.com investigated how one of Uber’s fleet of self-driving vehicles came to kill a pedestrian.
Homeless woman Elaine Herzberg, 49, died on March 18 in Tempe, Arizona, after being struck by a gray Volvo XC-90 SUV piloted by Rafaela Vasquez, 44.
Vasquez, a convicted felon who was sentenced to five years in jail in 2001 after being caught attempting to rob a branch of Blockbuster Video using an imitation firearm, told police she had attempted to brake but was unable to avoid the mother-of-two.
A video of the incident appears to show her looking repeatedly down at something inside the car before her jaw drops in horror as she finally spots the 49-year-old.
Herzberg, a three-time-married mother-of-two, was crossing busy thoroughfare North Mill Avenue and had already made it across three lanes and a wide central meridian when she was struck.
The incident is now being investigated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, who are delving into why the car’s Lidar laser detection system failed to spot Herzberg, among other things.
The death, the first caused to a pedestrian by a self-driving car, has also raised fresh questions for Uber – not least how a single ‘safety driver’ with limited training came to be behind the wheel.
At the launch of their self-driving car project in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Arizona, Uber showed off cars with two engineers up front and never challenged reports that claimed this would always be the case during the pilot scheme.
But it admitted in a statement to DailyMail.com that it has now ditched that requirement and has switched to drivers with just 21 days of training and no technical background.
‘After more than a year of thorough planning, development and safety reviews, we transitioned most operations to having a single vehicle operator, without a second person to collect feedback for our engineers using a laptop in the passenger seat,’ the company said in the statement.
‘This transition happened slowly as we worked with our vehicle operators to make sure they were well-trained and felt comfortable with this new job.
The video, released by Tempe police, shows the car traveling at about 40mph in a 45mph zone along a relatively empty roadway on Sunday night
In the seconds leading up to the collision, Rafaela Vasquez, 44, the safety driver who must take control of the car if there are any problems, is seen looking down and to the side
Seconds later, Vasquez grows alarmed when she realizes the car is about to hit the pedestrian. The footage appears to back up her claims that she was alert during the ride and nothing she could have done would have prevented the fatal collision
‘We decided to make this transition because after testing, we felt we could accomplish the task of the second person – annotating each intervention with information about what was happening around the car – by looking at our logs after the vehicle had returned to base, rather than in real time.
‘We continue to use two operators for tests in which detailed in-vehicle feedback is important. It was not and never has been the role of the passenger-seat operator to maintain the vehicle’s safety.
‘That is and always has been the clear and primary responsibility of the operator behind the wheel.’
On Friday, the company claimed to have ‘introduced this’ change to the local press in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, last Fall.
But after being informed that no contemporary news reports could be found, Uber admitted that the move had never been publicized either via a press release or a public announcement.
Indeed, a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette dating from September 2017 again refers to ‘two technicians’ being at the wheel.
Uber made last week’s statement after first falsely claiming to DailyMail.com that it had never suggested two engineers would always be present in each car.
Friday’s statement also points the finger of blame in the death of Herzberg at Vasquez, a felon who had committed a series of driving offenses – all of which was known to Uber when she was hired.
She has not responded to requests for comment from DailyMail.com.
However, DailyMail.com has also learned that Uber requires all of its drivers, including those in the regular fleet, to sign non-disclosure agreements – meaning they would face financial penalties for publicly discussing any safety concerns they might have.
When DailyMail.com approached another driver, Patrick Murphy, 49, of Chandler, Arizona, who had been involved in a previous non-fatal crash, he declined to comment citing the NDA.
The disclosures over the level of supervision of its self-driving cars and the secrecy Uber has insisted on for its drivers are likely to be seized on by lawyers for the family of the dead woman.
Rafaela Vasquez was behind the wheel of the self-driving Volvo SUV which struck Herzberg. Police say she stepped in front of it with her bicycle (shown above next to the car)
The revelations are also likely to be looked upon with interest by regulatory authorities and Uber investors, as well as the growing number of advocacy groups concerned about safety standards.
Rosemary Shahan of Sacramento-based Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS) claims Uber does not do enough to protect the public and slammed the company for opposing proposed Federal safety measures for self-driving cars.
‘I think Uber has a real contempt for the law and a very high disregard for public safety, Shahan, 68, told DailyMail.com.
‘They did not even screen out cars that are subject to a Federal safety recall in their fleet.’
She added: ‘They’re trying to do this without any safety standards – they’re even opposing just a basic standard saying a car should be secure from being hacked.
‘The FBI has been warning them they’re very concerned about the potential for criminals or terrorists to hack into these cars and weaponize them – to deliver bombs or potentially drive them off the road or over a bridge.
‘But Uber and the auto manufacturers are saying, no, no, no, trust us – we will self-certify that our cars are OK.
‘They give a lot of lip service to safety but if they really cared about safety they wouldn’t be allowing their drivers to drive around in these recall cars that they know are unsafe.
‘That’s just playing Russian Roulette with their customers’ lives.’
The watering down of the two engineers requirement and the imposition of NDAs took place when the company was still led by Travis Kalanick.
Forty-one-year-old Kalanick was forced to resign from Uber last June after a series of scandals rocked the firm – including accusations of sexual harassment and a ‘toxic’ workplace culture.
In February 2017, former Uber engineer Susan J Fowler penned an explosive blog post that claimed, among other things, she had been pestered for sex by a manager.
The watering down of the two engineers requirement and the imposition of NDAs took place when the company was still led by Travis Kalanick (pictured), who stepped down from the company last year
This is not the first time Uber has grounded its fleet of self-driving cars. In March 2017, an autonomous Volvo SUV (pictured on its side) got into accident when the other vehicle ‘failed to yield’ while making a left turn, according to police
Ten days later, senior executive Amit Singhal was forced to quit after he failed to disclose he had been subject to a sexual harassment complaint while working for Google.
Then, a video showing Kalanick berating an Uber driver as he was being transported from a Super Bowl party emerged, which also captured the 41-year-old boasting: ‘I make sure every year is a hard year.
‘That’s kind of how I roll. I make sure every year is a hard year. If it’s easy, I’m not pushing hard enough.’
Less than a month later, Kalanick’s ex-girlfriend Gabi Holzwarth publicly revealed he and five other Uber employees had visited an escort bar in Seoul, South Korea, in mid-2014.
On June 6, 2017, 20 Uber employees were fired after a law firm conducted an investigation into 215 staff complaints dating from 2012.
A day later, another executive was canned for obtaining the medical records of a woman raped by an Uber driver in India in 2014 and sharing them with Kalanick.
Kalanick, who had initially announced he was taking ‘an indefinite leave of absence’ from the company, eventually stepped down on June 21.
Uber, which was launched in 2009, has also previously been accused of targeting reporters who produce negative reports about the company, and of operating a ‘Grayball’ system that makes it impossible for certain individuals – including law enforcement officers – to use the app.
The company’s self-driving car scheme has also been hit by scandal, including a lawsuit filed by Waymo – the autonomous vehicle company set up by Google – accusing it of filching trade secrets.
In the lawsuit, filed in March 2017, Waymo said one of its former engineers who became chief of Uber’s self-driving car project took thousands of confidential documents with him.
The case was settled last month in San Francisco after Uber agreed to hand over $245million-worth of its shares to Waymo’s parent company and said it would not use any of Waymo’s technology in future designs.