The Uber self-driving car crash that killed a pedestrian in March 2018 was the fault of the vehicleâ€™s operator, who wasnâ€™t paying attention at the time and was likely looking at her cell phone, the National Transportation Safety Board has determined. But the safety watchdog didnâ€™t end the blame game there. At a board meeting in Washington, DC, Tuesday afternoon, it said that a slew of terrible decisionsâ€”by Uber, the state of Arizona, and the federal governmentâ€”contributed to the death of Elaine Herzberg, the 49-year-old woman who was fatally struck.
The safety board, which has no regulatory power, also issued a series of recommendations its members believe will help avoid a repeat crash. The six promptsâ€”to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is charged with overseeing vehicle safety in the US; to the state of Arizona, which has very few rules governing automated vehicle testing; to the organization that oversees local law enforcement and motor vehicle departments; and to Uber itselfâ€”show that the safety board is pushing for regulation of self-driving vehicles on public roads, including codifying todayâ€™s federal guidelines into proper, enforceable rules.
But not too much regulation, which self-driving vehicle developers say might stifle innovation and prevent the roll-out of what they call a life-saving technology. â€œWe haven’t really put the meat cleaver to this and tried to stifle innovation,â€� NTSB Chair Robert Sumwalt told reporters after the board meeting Tuesday. â€œWeâ€™re just trying to put some bounds on the testing on the roadways.â€�
First, the safety panel thinks NHTSA should do more to gauge how self-driving developers are running their test operations on public roads. NHTSAâ€™s guidelines for testing robocars are a set of principles rather than a blueprint for safety, and while the agency invites companies to submit self-assessment safety reports, it doesnâ€™t evaluate those. As a result, the 16 voluntary safety assessment letters that AV companies have submitted â€œare kind of all over the place,â€� NTSB investigator Ensar Becic said at the meeting. (Sixty-two companies are registered to test their robots in California.) â€œSome have a good amount of detail, while others quite frankly read like marketing brochures.â€� Jennifer Homendy, one of three NTSB board members, called the setup â€œlaughable.â€�
The Board voted unanimously to recommend that NHTSA make those reports mandatory, and create a process for actually assessing them. In a statement, NHTSA said itâ€™s still working on its own investigation into the crash, and that it will â€œcarefully reviewâ€� the NTSBâ€™s report and recommendations.