Uber warned of self-driving car dangers days before cyclist's death

Former manager said 'we shouldn't be hitting things every 15,000 miles'

Uber autonomous vehicle. Photo by ANGELO MERENDINO/AFP/Getty Images
(Image credit: ANGELO MERENDINO/AFP/Getty Images)

Senior executives at Uber were warned of the dangers of its self-driving cars just days before a cyclist was hit by one of the vehicles in a fatal collision, according to reports.

A manager at Uber, who has since left the company, emailed bosses to warn them of the problems not long before Elaine Herzberg was hit when wheeling her bike across the street in Arizona.

The 49-year-old sustained fatal injuries in the accident, on March 18. The back-up Uber driver, Rafaela Vasquez, is said to have been watching 'The Voice' on her phone at the time.

The Information has published (opens in new tab) an email, from manager Robbie Miller, in which he shared several serious concerns over both the software that drives the Volvo SUVs as well as the training provided to the back-up drivers and failure to reprimand misconduct.

Miller, who was involved in the development of the 'robotaxis', said in the email: “The cars are routinely in accidents resulting in damage.

“This is usually the result of poor behavior of the operator or the AV technology. A car was damaged nearly every other day in February. We shouldn’t be hitting things every 15,000 miles. Repeated infractions for poor driving rarely results in termination. Several of the drivers appear to not have been properly vetted or trained.”

The manager had previously worked on Google's self-driving cars, Waymo, and said: “At Waymo I would not have been surprised if the entire fleet was immediately grounded for weeks or longer if a vehicle exhibited the same behavior.”

Uber has suspended on-road testing of the autonomous vehicles, and told The Information: “Right now the entire team is focused on safely and responsibly returning to the road in self-driving mode. We have every confidence in the work that the team is doing to get us there.

“Our team remains committed to implementing key safety improvements, and we intend to resume on-the-road self-driving testing only when these improvements have been implemented and we have received authorization from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.”

The Information also states that some of the issues raised were incorporated into a company review, compiled after the crash.

In 2016, trials in California highlighted flaws in the way that the cars detected cyclists and navigated bike lanes.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles attempted to prevent the trial of Uber’s Volvo XC90 self-driving vehicle, but the company went ahead.

San Francisco Bicycle Coalition member Brian Wiedenmeier said at the time: “I told staff from Uber’s policy and engineering teams about the safety hazards of their autonomous vehicle technology.”

“They told me they would work on it. Then, two days later, they unleashed that technology on San Francisco’s streets.”

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Michelle Arthurs-Brennan

Michelle Arthurs-Brennan is a traditional journalist by trade, having begun her career working for a local newspaper, where highlights included interviewing a very irate Freddie Star (and an even more irate theatre owner), as well as 'the one about the stolen chickens'.

Previous to joining the Cycling Weekly team, Michelle was Editor at Total Women's Cycling. She joined CW as an 'SEO Analyst', but couldn't keep her nose out of journalism and in the spreadsheets, eventually taking on the role of Tech Editor before her latest appointment as Digital Editor. 

Michelle is a road racer who also enjoys track riding and the occasional time trial, though dabbles in off-road riding too (either on a mountain bike, or a 'gravel bike'). She is passionate about supporting grassroots women's racing and founded the women's road race team 1904rt.

Michelle is on maternity leave from July 8 2022, until April 2023.