Sensor firm Velodyne 'baffled' by Uber self-driving death

Dave Lee
North America technology reporter

  • Published
Media caption,

Uber dashcam footage shows moment before fatal impact

The firm that designed the sensors on the Uber self-driving car that killed a woman this week has said its technology was not to blame.

San Jose-based Velodyne told the BBC it was "baffled" by the incident, adding its equipment was capable of seeing in the dark.

Elaine Herzberg, 49, was struck by the car late on Sunday night in Tempe, Arizona. She died in hospital.

The investigation into what caused her death is ongoing.

Video of the incident was published by investigators earlier on Wednesday. It showed Ms Herzberg walking with her bicycle, away from a pedestrian crossing. Neither the car - nor its human driver - reacted.

A spokeswoman for Uber told the BBC it would not comment on Velodyne's view while the inquiry took place.

'Can see perfectly well'

Velodyne's Lidar sensors are used by a number of companies testing self-driving cars on public roads today.

Lidar is a type of radar that essentially gives the car the ability to "see" what is around it.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Uber has been testing autonomous Volvo vehicles - which have Velodyne Lidar sensors on top

Velodyne Lidar president Marta Hall told the BBC it would not be advising its customers to halt tests in the wake of the Arizona death because "we do not believe the accident was due to Lidar".

Instead, the company is pointing to Uber's on-board computer as potentially being to blame, Ms Hall said.

"Our Lidar can see perfectly well in the dark, as well as it sees in daylight, producing millions of points of information.

"However, it is up to the rest of the system to interpret and use the data to make decisions. We do not know how the Uber system of decision-making works."

Software accusation

While it makes use of third-party hardware, Uber's self-driving cars use software developed in house.

Uber has suspended its self-driving programme - which was taking place in four US cities - until it knows more about what happened.

The firm's chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi said of the incident: "We’re thinking of the victim’s family as we work with local law enforcement to understand what happened."

Velodyne said it had not been in contact with Uber about the incident, but was in the process of preparing to speak to investigators.

The National Traffic Safety Board said it was working on a preliminary report to be published within the next few weeks - a fuller conclusion will not be made for several months.

Ms Hall added: "We are very sad, sorry, and worried for the future of a project which is intended to save lives."


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