Category: Accident Safety

Accident Investigation & ReconstructionAccident SafetyExpert Witness

Tesla and Uber Self-Driving Systems Result in Fatal Crashes

In the last few weeks we have read several news reports about self-driving car accidents. Tesla and Uber, two companies leading innovation in driverless automobiles, have recently experienced fatal collisions which have hampered their autonomous testing. These are not the first instances of fatal crashes using the self-piloting systems. However, the collisions happened in such a close time frame, the public had to take notice.

On March 18, an Uber autonomous vehicle (AV) was involved in a fatal crash with a pedestrian. A Phoenix Business Journal article describes video of incident as follows:

“The video shows the victim Elaine Herzberg walking her bike in the middle of the road. It does not show the actual collision “due to the graphic nature of the impact,” said Det. Liliana Duran in an email. The video also shows an interior view of the driver looking down at something off and on, possibly a phone or computer screen, before looking up in surprise right before the car hits the woman.”

Due to the graphic nature of the video, we have decided not to share it here. There appears to be some elements of distracted driving involved in this crash. Human error seems to have combined with a failure by the autonomous (self-piloting) system, to identify the pedestrian and brake or take evasive action to avoid the collision.

About 5 days after the Uber crash, Tesla experienced a similar incident while their autopilot system was engaged. Engadget reported on this accident explaining:

“The driver of a Model X has died after his electric SUV collided with a median barrier on Highway 101 in Mountain View and was subsequently struck by two other vehicles. The incident destroyed the front half of the vehicle and sparked a fire that involved the battery, leading to Tesla sending an employee to investigate. Witnesses reported seeing a fireball during the crash.”

In a follow-up article today, Engadget has gone on to state that the NTSB is unhappy that Tesla shared information about the accident. Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, went ahead and blogged that autopilot was engaged but that the driver had removed his hands from the steering wheel for the six seconds prior to impact. The NTSB says Tesla has been cooperative in all previous accident investigations, but evidently they did not want this information made public. Also, it seems the deceased driver, had some concerns about the autopilot system according to his family.

The family claims “he had brought concerns to a Tesla dealership that his Model X had previously swerved toward the same median where the accident happened.”

What gets investigated when autopilot fails?

Readers may think that some elaborate investigation needs to take place since we are dealing with driverless automobiles. The truth is, this boils down to an automotive / vehicular accident reconstruction issue.

Certainly there is advanced programming involved and the crash data retrieval (CDR) may require new methods or new technologies to access information, but the data must be recovered nonetheless.

The NTSB even states, “At this time the NTSB needs the assistance of Tesla to decode the data the vehicle recorded.” They probably require help in accessing the data from Tesla’s proprietary system, but it is still a matter of CDR. If Elon Musk knows that the driver removed his hands from the wheel for six seconds prior to impact, he must have learned of this through the data retrieval process used by Tesla.

The same is true in the Uber crash. They already have dash-cam footage that shows the vehicle did not slow before striking the pedestrian. In that instance, an accident recontstructionist, automotive engineer, or automotive software engineer will have to analyze the self-driving sensors, data, and response of the software, to determine why the car failed to respond while on autopilot.

Both of these accidents require failure analysis. What seems new to us as a society, is that these crashes involved a failure of software, rather than brakes, tires, steering columns, or seat belt failures (failures that have become common and often result in a recall to fix a feature).

The technology and collection methods may change. However, the theories of liability and the investigation remain pretty constant. We have two automobile crashes resulting in death. They require a thorough accident reconstruction investigation to determine the cause of the accidents. Once determined, matters of negligence, product liability, and fault still apply.

 

Accident Investigation & ReconstructionAccident SafetyIndustrial Accident

Car Accident Experts: Quentin Tarantino Questions How the Uma Thurman Accident Happened

Over the weekend we heard from another victim of Harvey Weinstein. This time, actress Uma Thurman discussed her assault at the hands of Hollywood’s most well-known predator in a piece for the New York Times. In this opinion piece by Maureen Dowd, Uma Thurman recounts a physical attack by Weinstein that occurred when she was a young actress (an attack Weinstein denies).

Also discussed in the article was a car accident on the set of Kill Bill. An accident Thurman believes resulted in long-term neck and knee damage. The interesting aspect of this car accident is that it was recorded by a camera mounted on the Karmann Ghia driven by Thurman (video available in the Times article).

In an article published last night by Deadline, director Quentin Tarantino explains that he provided the 15-year-old footage to Ms. Thurman in the hopes that “if I get this footage to her and she puts it out there in the world, that a crash expert can look at it and determine exactly what happened on that road.”

In the article on Deadline, Tarantino provides us with some more information about contributing factors in the crash. Here are some of the items that an accident reconstructionist would have to take into account when viewing the video.

  • Uma Thurman was driving the automobile somewhere between 35 and 45 MPH
  • There was an S-curve in the road that appears to be a fork in the road
  • The road had more sand and less dirt than Tarantino anticipated
  • Tarantino drove the road in one direction to test safety
  • Thurman drove the road in the opposite direction with no prior test in that direction
  • There was a mounted camera on the back of the automobile making the back-end heavier
  • Tarantino says the automobile was hydroplaning on the sand
  • The car goes into a spin in the sand and slides into the tree

Unfortunately for Thurman, she believes that the automobile may not be around for inspection by an auto accident expert. In the Deadline article, Tarantino explains his conversation with Thurman after the Times article was released last weekend and recounts their conversation as follows: “After the car incident. She feels it’s very possible the car was destroyed, at Harvey Weinstein’s insistence, and at Bennett Walsh and Lawrence Bender’s execution.” Putting aside the conspiratorial ideas and potential destruction of evidence, the remaining information to be analyzed is the video and witness statements.

What else can we determine from the video?

What else might help to determine the cause of the accident? In the video we actually get to see the impact to Ms. Thurman’s body at the time the automobile hits the tree. The movement and impact on the body could help explain the cause of the accident.

Not only will a “crash expert” be needed to analyze the video and witness statements as suggested by Tarantino, but it is likely a biomechanics expert would be required to help determine the injury to Thurman’s body. The combination of expertise from an accident reconstructionist and biomechanics expert will provide Ms. Thurman with a full accounting of the cause of this crash and resulting injury.

By her own account in the Times article, Ms. Thurman describes, “The steering wheel was at my belly and my legs were jammed under me… I came back from the hospital in a neck brace with my knees damaged and a large massive egg on my head and a concussion.” In the video you can see the relatively tall Thurman’s legs shoved under the steering wheel of the Karmann Ghia. There is also a protrusion (which appears to be her Kill Bill sword) at about shoulder level (while sitting). This protrusion impacts with the right side of her head when the front left side of the car collides with the tree. One can only imagine this item (which probably should have been secured or removed) was responsible for the concussion.

There are a host of other issues present in an accident like this. Certainly matters of workplace safety come to mind. However, Mr. Tarantino only seemed interested in determining the cause of the accident. In which case, we recommend the involvement of an automobile accident reconstructionist and a biomechanics expert as described above.

I invite any of our Experts.com members to review the video and write an article analyzing the accident!