Backup driver in self-driving Uber car was streaming TV show just before fatal accident, police say

Arizona authorities call the crash, which killed a pedestrian, ‘entirely avoidable’

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 June, 2018, 12:22am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 June, 2018, 3:17am

Police in Tempe, Arizona, said that evidence indicated the “safety” driver behind the wheel of a self-driving Uber car was distracted and streaming a television show on her smartphone right up until about the time of a fatal accident in March, deeming the crash that rocked the nascent self-driving industry “entirely avoidable”.

A 318-page report from the Tempe Police Department, released late on Thursday in response to a public records request, said that the driver, Rafaela Vasquez, repeatedly looked down and not at the road, glancing up just a half-second before the car hit Elaine Herzberg, 49, who was crossing the street at night.

According to the report, Vasquez could face charges of vehicle manslaughter. Based on testing, the crash would have been “entirely avoidable” had Vasquez been paying attention, the report said.

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Police said that records obtained from Hulu, an online service for streaming television shows and films, showed Vasquez’s account was playing the talent show “The Voice” on the night of the crash for about 42 minutes. It ended at 9:59pm, which “coincides with the approximate time of the collision,” according to the report.

It is not clear if Vasquez will be charged. County prosecutors will make that determination after reviewing police findings.

Vasquez could not immediately be reached for comment and Reuters could not locate her lawyer.

The Uber car was in autonomous mode at the time of the crash. But Uber, like other self-driving car developers, requires a backup driver to be in the car to intervene should the autonomous system fail or a tricky driving situation occur.

Vasquez looked up just 0.5 seconds before the crash, after keeping her head down for 5.3 seconds, the Tempe police report said. Uber’s self-driving Volvo SUV was travelling at slightly less than 44 miles an hour.

Uber declined to comment.

Last month, an Uber spokeswoman said the company was undergoing a “top-to-bottom safety review” and had brought on a former federal transport official to help improve the company’s safety culture. Uber prohibits safety drivers from using any mobile device while the self-driving cars are on a public road; drivers are told they can be fired for violating this rule.

Police said a review of video from inside the car showed Vasquez was looking down during the trip, and her face “appears to react and show a smirk or laugh at various points during the times that she is looking down”. The report found that Vasquez “was distracted and looking down” for close to seven of the nearly 22 minutes before the collision.

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According to a report last month by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is also investigating the crash, Vasquez told federal investigators she had been monitoring the self-driving interface in the car and that neither her personal phone nor her business phone were in use until after the crash.

That report showed Uber had disabled the emergency braking system in the Volvo, and Vasquez began braking less than a second after hitting Herzberg.

Herzberg, who was homeless, was walking her bicycle across the street, outside a pedestrian crossing on a four-lane road, on the night of March 18 when she was struck by the front right side of the Volvo.

The police report faulted Herzberg for “unlawfully crossing the road at a location other than a marked pedestrian crossing”.

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The crash dealt Uber a major setback in its efforts to develop self-driving cars, and the company closed its autonomous car testing programme in Arizona after the incident. The company has said it plans to begin testing elsewhere this summer, although in some cities it first will have to win over increasingly wary regulators.