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Uber insiders describe questionable decisions in self-driving car group



uber kills woman 2x1Samantha
Lee/Business Insider; Natalie Behring/REUTERS

  • On March 18 one of Uber’s self-driving cars killed a pedestrian, the
    first pedestrian fatality involving a self-driving car.
  • As Uber prepares to return its cars to the roads, Business
    Insider spoke to current and former employees and viewed internal
  • These employees and documents described vast dysfunctionality
    in Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, with rampant infighting
    and pressure to catch up to competitors, issues that these
    employees say continue to this day.
  • Sources say engineers were pressured to “tune” the
    self-driving car for a smoother ride in preparation of a big,
    planned year-end demonstration of their progress. But that meant
    not allowing the car to respond to everything it saw, real or
  • “This could have killed a toddler … That’s the accident
    that didn’t happen but could have,” one employee told Business

At 9:58 p.m. on a nearly moonless Sunday night, 49-year-old
Elaine Herzberg stepped into a busy section of Mill Road in
Tempe, Arizona, pushing her pink bicycle. A few seconds later,
one of Uber’s self-driving Volvo SUVs ran into her at 39 MPH and
killed her.

Inside the car, Rafaela Vasquez was working alone, as all of
Uber’s safety drivers did at the time. Her job was to watch the
car drive itself, taking control if it had issues. She kept
taking her eyes off the road, but not to enter data into
an iPad app as her job required. She was streaming an
episode of  “The
Voice” over Hulu on her phone
. She looked up again just as
the car hit Herzberg, grabbed the wheel and gasped.

These are the details of the March 18 incident according
to the
preliminary National Safety Transportation Board
police reports
and a video of the
released by police.

The incident shocked people inside Uber’s Advanced Technologies
Group, the company’s 1,100-person self-driving unit. Employees
shared their horror in chat rooms and in the halls, several
employees told Business Insider.

Self-driving cars are promoted as being safer than humans, able
to see and react with the speed of a computer. But one of their
cars had been involved in the first-ever self-driving fatality of
a pedestrian.

When employees learned that Herzberg was a jaywalking homeless
woman and that her blood tested positive for meth and pot, many
seized on those details to explain away the tragedy, several
employees told us. (Uber has since settled a lawsuit from her
daughter and husband.)

uber arizona self driving car crash
Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators examine a
self-driving Uber vehicle involved in a fatal accident in Tempe,
Arizona, U.S., March 20, 2018.

National Transportation Safety Board/Handout via

When employees discovered Vasquez was watching Hulu, and was a
convicted felon before Uber hired her, they vilified her.

“People were blaming everything on her,” one employee said.

But insiders tell us that Vasquez and Herzberg were not the only
factors in this death. There was a third party that deserves some
blame, they say: the car itself, and a laundry list of
questionable decisions made by the people who built it.

Uber’s car had actually spotted Herzberg six seconds before it
hit her, and a second before impact, it knew it needed to brake
hard, the NSTB reported.

But it didn’t.

It couldn’t.

Its creators had forbidden the car from slamming on the brakes in
an emergency maneuver, even if it detected “a squishy thing” —
Uber’s term for a human or an animal, sources told Business
Insider. And the NSTB report said that Uber had deliberately
disabled self-driving braking.

The car’s creators had also disabled the Volvo’s own emergency
braking factory settings, the report found and insiders confirmed
to Business Insider.

(Read more: Uber lost nearly $1 billion last
quarter as the ride-hailing giant’s growth slows

According to emails seen by Business Insider, they had even
tinkered with the car’s ability to swerve.

Much has been written about the death of Elaine Herzberg, most of
it focused on the failings of the driver. But, until now, not
much has been revealed about why engineers and senior leaders
turned off the car’s ability to stop itself.

Insiders told us that it was a result of chaos inside the
organization, and may have been motivated, at least in part, to
please the boss.

Business Insider spoke to seven current and former employees
of Uber’s self-driving car unit employed during the time of the
accident and in the months succeeding it. We viewed internal
emails, meeting notes and other documents relating to the
self-driving car program and the incident.

We learned that these insiders allege that, despite many warnings
about the car’s safety, the senior leadership team had a pressing
concern in months before the accident: impressing Uber’s new CEO
Dara Khosrowshahi with a demo ride that gave him a pleasant “ride

These employees and documents paint a picture of:

  • Leadership that feared Khosrowshahi was contemplating
    canceling the project, ending their very high paying jobs, so
    they wanted to show him progress.
  • Engineers allegedly making dangerous trade-offs with safety
    as they were told to create a smooth riding experience.
  • Incentives and priorities that pressured teams to move fast,
    claim progress, and please a new CEO.
  • A series of warning signals that were either ignored or not
    taken seriously enough.
  • Vast dysfunctionality in Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group,
    with rampant infighting so that no one seemed to know what others
    were doing.

After the accident on March 18, Uber grounded the fleet. Although
the NSTB’s final report has not yet been released, (it’s expected
in April, sources tell us), the company is already making plans
to put its cars back on the public roads, according to documents
viewed by Business Insider. Uber is trying to catch up to
competitors like Google’s Waymo and GM, who never halted their
road tests.

‘Could have killed a toddler’

To some Uber insiders, Herzberg’s death was the tragic but
unsurprising consequence of a self-driving car that should not
have been driving on the open road at night and perhaps not at

uber self driving car
Uber’s self-driving Volvo SUV.
Gene J. Puskar / AP

Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, the unit building
self-driving vehicles, is currently spending $600 million a
year, sources familiar with the matter tell Business Insider,
although others have said the budget has been closer to $1
billion a year. And it remains woefully behind the self-driving
car market leaders in every measurable way although Uber tells us
that the company has “every confidence in the work” the team is
doing to get back on track.

At the time of the accident, engineers knew the car’s
self-driving software was immature and having trouble recognizing
or predicting the paths of a wide variety of objects, including
pedestrians, in various circumstances, according to all the
employees we talked to.

For instance, the car was poorly equipped for “near-range
sensing” so it wasn’t always detecting objects that were within a
couple of meters of it, two people confirmed to Business Insider.

“This could have killed a toddler in a parking lot. That was our
scenario. That’s the accident that didn’t happen, but could
have,” one software developer said.

Every week, software team leaders were briefed on hundreds of
problems, ranging from minor to serious, people told us, and the
issues weren’t always easy to fix.

For example, the tree branches.

For weeks on end, during a regular “triage” meeting where issues
were prioritized by vice president of software Jon Thomason, tree
branches kept coming up, one former engineer told us.

Tree branches create shadows in the road that the car sometimes
thought were physical obstacles, multiple people told us.

Jon Thomason
Thomason, the vice president of software at Uber’s ATG


Uber’s software “would classify them as objects that are actually
moving and the cars would do something stupid, like stop or call
for remote assistance,” one engineer explained. “Or the software
might crash and get out of autonomy mode. This was a common issue
that we were trying to fix.”

Thomason grew irate at one of these meetings, another engineer
recalls, and demanded the problem be fixed. “This is
unacceptable! We are above this! We shouldn’t be getting stuck on
tree branches, so go figure it out,” Thomason said.

An Uber spokesperson denies that the car stops for tree branch
shadows. This spokesperson said the car stops for actual
tree branches in the road.

Meanwhile, another employee also said that piles of leaves could
confuse the car. A third employee told us of other efforts to
teach the car to recognize foliage.

Employees also said the car was not always able to predict the
path of a pedestrian. And according to an email reviewed by
Business Insider, the car’s software didn’t always know what to
do when something partially blocked the lane it was driving in.

On top of all of this, a number of engineers at Uber said they
believed the cars were not being thoroughly tested in safer
settings. They wanted better simulation software, used more

uber driverless carBusiness Insider/Corey Protin

The company started to address that concern before the accident
when it hired a respected simulation engineer in February.
Recently, Uber has
publicly vowed
to do more simulation testing when it is
allowed to send its cars back on the open road again.

But before Herzberg’s accident, “We just didn’t invest in it. We
had sh–. Our off-line testing, now called simulation, was almost
non-existent, utter garbage,” as one described it.

Besides simulation, another way to test a self-driving car is on
a track.

But employees we spoke to described Uber’s track testing efforts
as disorganized with each project team doing it their own way and
no one overseeing testing as a whole.

This kind of holistic oversight is another area that Uber says it
is currently addressing.

Yet, even now, months after the tragedy, these employees say that
rigorous, holistic safety testing remains weak. They say that the
safety team has been mostly working on a “taxonomy” — in other
words, a list of safety-related terms to use — and not on
making sure the car performs reliably in every setting. Uber
tells us that the safety team has been working on both the
taxonomy and the tests itself.

Dara’s ride

As employees worked, they were acutely aware of division
leadership’s plans to host a very important passenger: Uber’s new
CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi.

Khosrowshahi had taken over as Uber CEO in the summer of 2017,
following a tumultuous year in which the company was battered by
a string of scandals involving everything from sexual harassment
allegations to reports of unsavory business practices. The
self-driving car group wasn’t immune, with Anthony Levandowski,
its leader and star engineer, ousted in April 2017, amid
accusations of IP theft.

The unit’s current leader, Eric Meyhofer, took Levadowski’s place
just five months before Khosrowshahi was hired.

Despite Uber’s massive investment in self-driving cars, its
program was considered to be far behind the
competition. News
reports speculated that
Khosrowshahi should just shut it

The chief executive of Uber Technologies Inc, Dara Khosrowshahi attends a meeting with Brazilian Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles (not pictured) in Brasilia, Brazil October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Adriano Machado
CEO Dara Khosrowshahi


None of this was lost on Meyhofer and the senior team, who wanted
to impress their new CEO with a show of progress, sources and
documents said.

Plans were made to take Khosrowshahi on a demo ride sometime
around April and to have a big year-end public demonstration.
ATG needed to “sizzle,” Meyhofer liked to say, people told
us. Internally, people began talking about “Dara’s ride” and
“Dara’s run.”

The stakes were high. If ATG died it could end the leadership
team’s high-paying jobs. Senior engineers were making over
$400,000 and directors made in the $1 million range between
salary, bonus and stock options, multiple employees said.

Leadership also had their reputation at stake. They did not want
to be forever be known as the ones who led Uber’s much-publicized
project to its death, people close to Meyhofer explained.

Internally, unit leaders geared up to pull off the “sizzle.”

‘Bad experiences’

As the world’s largest ride-hailing company, Uber understood the
need to give customers a good experience. If passengers were
going to accept self-driving cars, the ride could not be the
jarring experience that had made a
BuzzFeed reporter car sick
during a demonstration.

So, in November, a month after Khosrowshahi became their new
boss, Eric Hansen, a senior member of the product team sent out a
“product requirement document” that spelled out a new goal for
ATG, according to an email viewed by Business Insider. (Hansen
has since become the director of the product group.)

Uber driverless carBusiness Insider/Corey Protin

The document asked engineers to think of  “rider experience
metrics” and prescribed only one “bad experience” per ride for
the big, year-end demonstration.

Given how immature the car’s autonomous software was at the time,
“that’s an awfully high bar to meet,” one software developer

Some engineers who had been focused on fixing safety-related
issues were aghast. Engineers can “tune” a self-driving car to
drive smoother easily enough, but with immature software, that
meant not allowing the car to respond to everything it saw, real
or not, sources explained. And that could be risky.

“If you put a person inside the vehicle and the chances of that
person dying is 12%, you should not be discussing anything about
user experience,” one frustrated engineer hypothesized. “The
priority should not be about a user experience but about safety.”

Two days after the product team distributed the document
discussing “rider experience metrics” and limiting “bad
experiences,” to one per ride, another email went out. This one
was from several ATG engineers. It said they were turning
off the car’s ability to make emergency decisions on its own like
slamming on the brakes or swerving hard. 

Their rationale was safety.

“These emergency actions have real-world risk if the VO [“vehicle
operator” or safety driver] does not take over in time and other
drivers are not attentive, so it is better to suppress plans with
emergency actions in online operation,” the email read.

In other words, such quick moves can startle other drivers on the
road and if there was a real threat, the safety driver would have
already have taken over, they reasoned. So they resolved to limit
the car’s actions and rely wholly on the safety driver’s

The sub-context was clear: the car’s software wasn’t good enough
to make emergency decisions. And, one employee pointed out to us,
by restricting the car to gentler responses, it might also
produce a smoother ride.

A few weeks later, they gave the car back more of its ability to
swerve but did not return its ability to brake hard.

How Uber's self driving car worksShayanne Gal/Skye Gould/Business

Final warning

The final warning sign came just a couple of days before the

One of the lead safety drivers sent an email to Meyhofer laying
out a long list of grievances about the mismanagement and working
conditions of the safety driver program. 

“The drivers felt they were not being utilized well. That they
were being asked to drive around in circles but that their
feedback was not changing anything,” said one former engineer of
Uber’s self-driving car unit who was familiar with the driver

uber self-driving carBusiness Insider/Corey Protin

Drivers complained about long hours and not enough communication
on what they should be testing and watching for. But the big
complaint was the decision a few months earlier to start using
one driver instead of two. That choice instantly gave ATG access
to more drivers so the company could log more mileage without
having to hire double the drivers.

The second driver used to be responsible for logging the car’s
issues into an iPad app and dealing with the car’s requests to
identify objects on the road.

uber self driving carEric
Risberg / AP

Now one person had to do everything, employees told us. 

This not only eliminated the safety/redundancy of having two
drivers, it required the active driver to do the logging and
tagging, not keeping their eyes on the road, which some
inside the company believed was not safe.

It was like distracted driving, “like watching their cell phone
10-15% of the time,” said one software engineer.

If Meyhofer took the angry email from that safety driver
seriously — and multiple people told us he’d been reacting
with frustration to people he viewed as naysayers — he didn’t
have a chance to act on it before the tragedy that benched the
cars. Uber now says the self-driving car unit plans to
return to the two driver system when it sends its cars on the
road again.


A ‘toxic culture’

Some employees believe that ATG’s leaders were pushing for a
“ride experience” to make Khosrowshahi believe the car was
farther along than it was during that planned demo ride.

But others say mistakes were less conscious than that.

One engineer who worked closely with Meyhofer said the real
problem was that under his leadership there was “poor
communication, with a bunch of teams duplicating effort,” adding,
“One group doesn’t know what the other is doing.”

This engineer said one team would not know the other had disabled
a feature, or that a feature didn’t pass on the track test, or
that drivers were saying a car performed badly.

“They only know their piece. You get this domino
effect. All these things create an unsafe system,” this person

Eric Meyhofer
Meyhofer, head of Uber’s Advanced Technologies


Everyone we talked to also described the unit as a “toxic
culture” under Meyhofer.

They talked of impossible workloads, backstabbing teammates and
poor management.

According to documents viewed by Business Insider, leadership was
aware of this reputation, with Thomason confessing to other
leaders in a September meeting, “We repeatedly hear that ATG is
not a fun place to work” and admitted such feedback was
“baffling” to him.

While some people disliked Meyhofer and thought that he could be
insecure to the point of vindictiveness if he was challenged,
others described him as a nice guy with good intentions who was
in over his head.

“He is a hardware guy. He runs a tight hardware ship,” one
engineer and former employee who worked closely with him told us.
But the brains of a self-driving car is software, this person

This person says that meant Meyhofer lacked “the understanding
and know-how of the software space.”

“Imagine a leader that can’t weigh two options and decide the
best course of action,” described this engineer.

Everyone we spoke with agreed that part of the problem is that
Uber’s self-driving car unit was staffed by teams in two very
different locations with two very different engineering cultures.

There was a team in Pittsburgh, anchored by folks from
Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center (of which
Meyhofer was an alum) and there were San Francisco-based teams.

The San Francisco people complained that the NREC folks were a
bunch of academics with no real-world, product-building
experience, who retained their high paying jobs by virtue of
being Meyhofer’s cronies. The NREC team saw the San Francisco
engineers as whiny and ungrateful, people described.

On top of the infighting, there was a bonus structure that
rewarded some employees for speedily hitting milestones, careful
testing or not, multiple sources described. 

“At ATG, the attitude is I will do whatever it takes and I will
get this huge bonus,” one former engineer said. “I swear that
everything that drives bad behaviors was the bonus structure.”

In its safety
Uber says some of the ways ATG was measuring the
progress of its program before the accident created 
“perverse incentives.” 

Specifically, ATG, like everyone in the self-driving car
industry, believed that the more miles a car drove itself without
help from a human, the smarter it was. But the whole industry now
realized this is an overly simplistic way to measure how well a
car drives. If management is too focused on that metric,
employees may feel pressured not to take control of the car, even
when they should.

Uber has since vowed to find other ways to measure improvement
and tells us that milestone-based bonuses were limited to
just a few people and have recently been eliminated.

Internally, some remain frustrated with the self-driving unit.

Uber self-driving car
Uber’s ATG offices in

Business Insider/Danielle

“Within ATG, we refused to take responsibility. They blamed it on
the homeless lady, the Latina with a criminal record driving the
car, even though we all knew Perception was broken,” one software
developer said, referring to the software called “Perception”
that allows the car to interpret the data its sensors collect.
“But our car hit a person. No one inside ATG said, ‘We
did something wrong and we should change our behavior.'”

The employees we talked to note that most of the same leadership
team remains in place under Meyhofer, and some of them, like
Hansen, have even been promoted. They allege that the
unit’s underlying culture hasn’t really changed.

An Uber spokesperson says the company has reviewed its safety
procedures, made many changes already and is promising to make
many more. It described them all in a series of
the company
published this month, as it ramps up to hit the
road again soon.

uber self driving volvo
has been using Volvo SUVs to test its self-driving


“Right now the entire team is focused on safely and responsibly
returning to the road in self-driving mode,” the spokesperson
told us. “We have every confidence in the work they are doing to
get us there. We recently took an important step forward with the
release of our Voluntary Safety Self-Assessment. 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

The Uber CEO’s big ride-along never happened because of the March
accident — at least not on any public roads. But that may

Meyhofer and most of his closest
lieutenants remain in charge of ATG and want get their
self-driving cars on the road again as soon as possible, before
the end of the year, maybe even later this month, employees say.
In a September meeting of Meyhofer’s senior leadership, the team
was told: “We need to demonstrate something very publicly by
2019,” according to documents seen by Business Insider.

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