Sensor Technology Questioned Following Fatal Autonomous Vehicle Crash

The safety of autonomous vehicles and the technology that drives them has come under intense scrutiny this week, after a self-driving Uber vehicle failed to stop for a pedestrian, resulting in a fatality.

At 10 pm on March 19 in Tempe, Arizona, a Volvo SUV, which was equipped with Uber's autonomous-vehicle (AV) system, failed to respond to a pedestrian crossing the road. The vehicle collided with 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg at approximately 60 km/h.

Autonomous vehicles are widely considered to be the future. And as well as completely uprooting the transport sector, the technology will have far-reaching applications in a wide variety of workplaces. However, the Uber crash has many experts questioning the LIDAR technology that autonomous vehicles use to “see.”

LIDAR sensors use laser pulses to create a high-resolution map of the environment in real time. Uber’s new autonomous vehicle is equipped with one of these sensors on top of the car; however, its previous model had seven.

A former employee told Reuters that reducing the number of sensors had introduced a blind spot around the perimeter of the car, resulting in a system that was not perfectly able to sense pedestrians. In comparison, Google-owned Waymo uses six on its autonomous cars, and General Motors uses five.

The President of Velodyne, the company that builds Uber’s LIDAR sensors, Marta Hall, also questioned the safety implications of only using one sensor. "If you're going to avoid pedestrians, you're going to need to have a side LIDAR to see those pedestrians and avoid them, especially at night."

Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, Who’s company was also involved in a fatal autonomous vehicle crash last month, has previously dismissed the need for LIDAR technology in cars, suggesting it “doesn’t make sense”.

“For full autonomy, you’d really want to have a more comprehensive sensor suite and computer systems that are fail-proof. That said, I don’t think you need LIDAR. I think you can do this all with passive optical and then maybe one forward radar.”

The results of the ongoing investigation will undoubtedly be of interest to a range of stakeholders, and amongst the controversy, Uber maintained in a statement that safety was its first priority.

“We believe that technology has the power to make transportation safer than ever before and recognise our responsibility to contribute to safety in our communities. As we develop self-driving technology, safety is our primary concern every step of the way.”

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