Heather Somerville on story revealing Uber’s use of fewer safety sensors prompting questions after Arizona crash
In March, Reuters revealed that when Uber decided in 2016 to retire its fleet of self-driving Ford Fusion cars in favor of Volvo sport utility vehicles, it also chose to scale back on one notable piece of technology: the safety sensors used to detect objects in the road. The story, by Heather Somerville, Paul Lienert, Alexandria Sage, reported that the decision resulted in a self-driving vehicle with more blind spots than its own earlier generation of autonomous cars, as well as those of its rivals. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Heather offers a look at the reporting behind the story.
Q. How did you land this exclusive?
A. I first discovered the blind spot issue with Uber’s self-driving cars after talking with a former employee who had been a test driver for the company in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Arizona. I found this source through LinkedIn, where I spent hours searching and messaging people who had some experience testing or working on Uber’s self-driving cars. Most of the time, LinkedIn messages do not yield much, but very rarely, as in this case, you can find a superb source, which makes all the failed attempts worth it. This source also had a computer science background and was technologically sophisticated and could walk me through how Uber had changed its lidar design on the cars and the inadequacies that it introduced. From there, I found other former employees and, with help from my colleagues, academics and field experts who backed up the story my original source told.
Q. What types of reporting was involved?
A. The reporting involved finding and developing relationships with former Uber employees, reaching out to long-standing sources in the autonomous driving field and building up technical expertise, as this was a highly technical story.
Q. What was the hardest part of the reporting?
A. As with every Uber story, there is a tremendous amount of competition. And in this case, the broader story of the Uber self-driving car collision changed and evolved multiple times a day. We really had to hustle with a highly technical and sensitive story, which was a challenge.
Q. Why was this an important story to tell our customers?
A. The crash with the Uber self-driving car marked the first fatality by an autonomous vehicle and prompted industry and policy makers, and journalists, to take a closer look at truly how safe and sophisticated the technology is. Companies developing self-driving systems share very little information with lawmakers, regulators and the public, for fear of giving away competitive secrets. The result is that we have nascent technology systems driving through school zones and high-pedestrian areas, and we as a society don’t really know how they operate. I think our story gave readers a glimpse into how complex the systems are and how far they have to go still to be safe – despite that fact that in certain states they are allowed to operate with no more restrictions than a normal human-operated car.
Q. What makes you passionate about journalism?
A. I have always felt journalism offers the swiftest form of truth and justice, and does so with unwavering integrity.
Q. What is your beat and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
A. I cover private technology companies and venture capital, and I enjoy being front and center to companies that people interact with almost daily – such as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb – but have a shadowy underside. These companies have been massively disruptive to incumbent industries and have posed regulatory and legal challenges across the globe, and while they often provide really good services, they have at times left paths of destruction. It’s never boring.
Q. Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?
A. I guess the only thing that rivals being a journalist is being retired!