Uber Disabled Autonomous Safety Software Because It Made Rides 'Uncomfortable': Report

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More sources are coming forward with information about Uber’s self-driving technology that resulted in a fatal crash, Volkswagen has some electrified revelations and a ratified Ford contract with the UAW. All this and more in The Morning Shift for Monday, Nov. 18, 2019.

1st Gear: New Questions For Uber Over Self-Driving Software

Earlier this month, we reported Uber’s self-driving cars made it through 37 crashes before finally fatally striking a pedestrian in Arizona in March 2018. The National Transportation Safety Board will meet tomorrow to decide the probable cause of the crash, but some new insight has emerged.

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Uber officials apparently removed a “key fail-safe” from the test cars months before one of them hit and killed Elaine Herzberg in Arizona, according to Automotive News, citing two unnamed sources with “firsthand knowledge” of Uber’s self-driving system.


From the story:

The fail-safe, an internally developed feature called Reflex, was shelved because some members of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, or ATG, thought it triggered too many braking events at a time when the program was under pressure to show progress in developing software, said the sources, who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak on the matter.

Reflex provided an independent cross-check on the main self-driving systems by using short-range radar signals to sense imminent hazards directly in the path of vehicles. The sources, who had roles within ATG, believe that had it been enabled in Uber’s Volvo XC90 fleet, Reflex would have mitigated the collision that killed Elaine Herzberg — and possibly prevented it.

“It was designed to prevent exactly this sort of crash,” one source said.

Automotive News notes Reflex “has not been disclosed publicly.” It is also not referenced in any of the 43 documents and 439 pages of information the NTSB put on in its public docket regarding the fatal crash.

A third anonymous source apparently talked to the outlet “because they were concerned that investigators did not yet have a comprehensive picture of Uber’s safety capabilities and culture. Further, they worried that lessons learned from the crash have gone unheeded.”

Together, the three sources said Uber allegedly wanted to keep up with its rival, Waymo, which makes frequent announcements about how many cars it has in its fleet and how many miles they drive:

Even though many in ATG found little value in pursuing a similar course, leaders deemed it necessary to put a large number of cars on the road because those were metrics they believed investors valued.

When Uber named Dara Khosrowshahi CEO in August 2017, pressure to show progress intensified — not because pressure was directly applied by the CEO. In meetings before and after the crash, two of the sources say, Khosrowshahi showed tepid enthusiasm for Uber’s self-driving ambitions. In turn, ATG leaders ramped up efforts to show progress.

That included eliminating Reflex, because it caused frequent braking events that could make rides uncomfortable or jarring.

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In short, it sounds like Uber wanted to show progress rather than, you know, actually make progress.

The Automotive News story is quite good, and you can read the rest of it here.

Whatever comes out of that NTSB meeting tomorrow will probably be very, very bad for Uber’s self-driving division.

2nd Gear: You Don’t Say

Volkswagen is busy rolling out electric cars, starting with the all-new Volkswagen ID.3. It’ll be the one for the masses, though Volkswagen won’t bring it to the United States. And, it’s apparently cheaper to build than merely stuffing a battery into the trunk of a gasoline car. You don’t say!

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The ID.3, which is a cool, all-electric hatchback, will be 40 percent cheaper to build than the electric version of the Golf, according to Volkswagen boss Herbert Diess, reports Reuters.

From the story:

The battery in the new ID.3 can be used to add structural rigidity to the body and the modular layout of the battery allows for advantages in packaging and economies of scale.

“If you focus on an electric platform, all in all it accounts for a 40% reduction against the predecessor electric Golf,” Diess said. “Most of it from cells and the battery system. Around 5-10% comes from dedicating an entire plant to electric vehicles.”

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An electric car that’s cheaper to build and is structurally superior than merely converting its internal-combustion engine counterpart is a great thing, and really should be a no-brainer from the beginning. It’ll mean that automakers could actually commit to building cars that were designed to be EVs from the ground up with lower costs.

Unlike hybrid cars, which are typically built on the architecture of existing internal-combustion engine cars, a dedicated EV will be designed without the battery sticking rudely into usable storage space, as the Ford Fusion hybrid’s does.

Ground-up electric designs can also include things like front trunks, since packaging can be so much more flexible, like in the Tesla Model 3.

Full steam ahead with the dedicated EV platforms, I say. They can’t come quickly enough.

3rd Gear: New Ford Contract Ratified

On Friday night, United Auto Workers unit members ratified (by 56.3 percent) a new contract with Ford, good for the next four years.

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Members will see guaranteed raise increases for almost 55,500 employees, clearer paths to top pay for both full-time and temporary workers, no increase in healthcare costs and $6 billion in investments, according to the Detroit News.

From the story:

Full-time employees will receive $9,000 ratification bonuses, and temporary workers will receive $3,500 bonuses. They are expected to cost Ford $700 million in the fourth quarter, the company said in a news release.

A highlight for many members was retained health-care benefits at no additional cost. UAW-Ford employees pay on average 3% of total health-care costs compared to 28% for the average American household. The contract included some discounts for retail clinics and telemedicine.

The agreement includes 3% wage increases in the second and fourth years and 4% lump-sum bonuses in the first and third years for eligible permanent employees. Both full-time and temporary employees will be able to receive top wages by the end of the four years of the contract.

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Yet, some unit members voted against the contract in part due to reduced faith in the UAW from all the recent scandals.

Now, the only company left for the union to negotiate an agreement with next week is Fiat Chrysler, which is currently in merger discussions with Peugeot Citroën. Here’s to hoping they get a fair and good contract as well.

4th Gear: International Sourcing

Just because a car’s final assembly takes place in the U.S. doesn’t mean every component of it was sourced in the U.S. In fact, that would make the car very expensive to build and even more expensive for you to buy. Free trade is a good thing when it comes to building cars.

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Take a V6 engine from GM, as Reuters does:

Powdered aluminum from Tennessee is shipped to Pennsylvania and forged at high temperatures into connecting rods for the pistons, which are then sent to Canada to be shaped and polished. They are then shipped to Mexico for sub-assembly and finally the finished pistons are loaded onto trucks bound for Romulus to become part of a GM V-6 engine.

The parts make four international border crossings in all, without a single tariff levied.

The Romulus-built V-6 uses 235 parts from 100 primary suppliers. Sixty-seven ship from factories in the United States, 13 from Mexico, 8 from Canada and 12 from elsewhere in the world. Most of the electronics come from Asia.

All told, GM spends $71 billion a year on materials, sourcing 133,000 different parts from 3,100 primary suppliers.

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And it’s not just GM. Ford and FCA do it too, using the North American Free Trade Agreement to employ cheaper facilities across the continent to cut costs and maximize returns.

Donald Trump, however, wants to replace NAFTA with the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, because he is convinced it will increase American jobs. If we pull out of NAFTA if Congress doesn’t ratify USMCA:

... automakers would be forced to pay a patchwork of tariffs under World Trade Organization rules.

That would destroy the cost advantages of their cross-border supply chains - which include U.S. companies employing American workers - and would likely force automakers to redesign their manufacturing models and find cheaper alternatives elsewhere, industry experts say.

The uncertainty means automakers and manufacturers are holding off on key investments.

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And it would make American automakers less competitive. Overall, pulling out of NAFTA doesn’t seem like a good idea. Building cars is absolutely an international affair.

5th Gear: Big Nissan Recall

Recalls happen, and this time it’s Nissan.

The Japanese automaker is recalling 394,025 cars in the U.S. because of a braking system defect, according to Reuters. Basically, brake fluid could leak and potentially cause a fire.

The leak into internal circuit boards will trigger a warning to drivers, which if ignored may lead to a fire in “rare instances,” Nissan said in a filing dated Nov. 8 with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) under recall number 18V-601.

“... if the warning is ignored and the vehicle continues to be operated in this condition, the brake fluid leak may potentially create an electrical short in the actuator circuit, which in rare instances, may lead to a fire,” the Japanese automaker said.

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Affected cars include Maximas from 2016 through 2018, Infiniti QX60s from 2017 to 2019, Muranos from 2015 to 2018 and Pathfinders from 2017 to 2019.


If you have one of these cars, definitely make sure to get it checked out.

Reverse: Time Zones

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About the author

Kristen Lee

Writer at Jalopnik and consumer of many noodles.