Sensor supplier to self-driving Uber defends tech
A top executive for the maker of sensors used on the self-driving car that stuck and killed a woman in Arizona this week said she’s “baffled” as to why the tech-outfitted vehicle failed to recognize a pedestrian crossing the street and hit the brakes.
Marta Thoma Hall, president of Velodyne Lidar Inc., maker of the special laser radar that helps an autonomous car “see” its surroundings, said the company doesn’t believe its technology failed. But she’s surprised the car didn’t detect 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg as she pushed her bike across a road in Tempe, Arizona, around 10 p.m. on Sunday.
“We are as baffled as anyone else,” Thoma Hall wrote in an email. “Certainly, our Lidar is capable of clearly imaging Elaine and her bicycle in this situation. However, our Lidar doesn’t make the decision to put on the brakes or get out of her way.”
Velodyne, which supplies lidar to many of the world’s major auto and tech companies, is cooperating with federal investigators to determine what went wrong, Thoma Hall said. She said that the overall function of the self-driving system was the responsibility of Uber Technologies Inc., which was testing the Volvo XC90 model that struck Herzberg. Uber has halted its tests while the crash is being investigated.
“In addition to Lidar, autonomous systems typically have several sensors, including camera and radar to make decisions,” she wrote. “We don’t know what sensors were on the Uber car that evening, if they were working, or how they were being used.”
She said that lidar has no problems seeing in the dark. “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,” she added.
Recognizing pedestrians continues to be a challenge for autonomous technology, which will be part of the focus of the investigation. Thoma Hall suggested that those answers will be found at Uber, not Velodyne.
“We at Velodyne are very sad, and sorry about the recent Uber car accident which took a life,” she wrote. “David Hall, company CEO, inventor and founder, believes the accident was not caused by Lidar. The problem lies elsewhere.”