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Uber's Safety Driver in Fatal Crash Was Watching a TV Show Behind the Wheel

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【Summary】For the past several months, Uber’s entire self-driving program was heavily scrutinized, including the autonomous driving software it developed, after a self-driving Uber fatally struck a pedestrian in Arizona. But a new police report puts some of the blame back on the driver, who was watching a television show on a mobile device in the moments before the crash.

Eric Walz    Jun 22, 2018 1:44 PM PT
Uber's Safety Driver in Fatal Crash Was Watching a TV Show Behind the Wheel

For the past several months, Uber's entire self-driving program was heavily scrutinized, including the autonomous driving software it developed, after a self-driving Uber fatally struck a pedestrian in Arizona. But a new police report puts some of the blame back on the driver, who was watching a television show on a mobile device in the moments before the crash.

Police obtained records from Hulu, an online service for streaming TV shows and movies, which showed that Uber's safety driver Hulu account was playing the TV talent show "The Voice" for about 42 minutes on the night of the crash, ending at 9:59 p.m., which "coincides with the approximate time of the collision," the report said.

The Uber driver was identified as 44 year-old Rafaela Vasquez.

Crash ‘Entirely Avoidable'

The report said police concluded the crash, which has dealt Uber Technologies Inc a major setback in its efforts to develop self-driving cars, would have been "entirely avoidable" if Vasquez had been paying attention. Uber's self-driving test vehicle, a Volvo XC90 SUV, requires a human to oversee the autonomous systems in case anything goes wrong.

The vehicle was operating autonomous mode at the time of the crash, but the company, like other self-driving car developers, requires a backup driver ready to intervene when the autonomous system fails or an unexpected situation occurs.

Vasquez could face charges of vehicular manslaughter, according to the report, which was released late on Thursday in response to a public records request.

Police submitted their findings to local prosecutors, who will make a determination on whether to file criminal charges. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office referred the case to the Yavapai County Attorney's Office because of a conflict.

A spokeswoman for the Yavapai County Attorney's Office said on Friday that "the matter is still pending review. We do not have a projected timeline for a decision."

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 traveling at just under 44 miles (71 km) per hour.

"We continue to cooperate fully with ongoing investigations while conducting our own internal safety review," an Uber spokeswoman said. "We have a strict policy prohibiting mobile device usage for anyone operating our self-driving vehicles. We plan to share more on the changes we'll make to our program soon."

Last month, the Uber spokeswoman said the company was undergoing a "top-to-bottom safety review," and had brought on a former U.S. federal transportation official to help improve its safety culture.

Police said video taken from inside the Volvo 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 prior to the collision.

Last month, Tempe Police Detective Michael McCormick reached out to Hulu for assistance in the investigation. He emailed the company on May 10 stating "this is a very serious case where the charges of vehicle manslaughter may be charged, so correctly interpreting the information provided to us is crucial." Hulu compiled and turned over Vasquez's viewing history on May 31.

NTSB Report

According to a report last month by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is also investigating the crash, Vasquez told investigators she had been monitoring the self-driving interface in the car and claimed her personal or business phone was not in use until after the crash.

That report also revealed that Uber had disabled Volvo's emergency braking system in the vehicle and Vasquez began braking less than a second after hitting Herzberg.

Herzberg was walking her bicycle across the street outside of a crosswalk on a four-lane road when she was struck by the self-driving Uber vehicle.

The police report faulted Herzberg for "unlawfully crossing the road at a location other than a marked crosswalk." The incident occured at night, making Herzberg more difficult to see for the safety driver. However, Uber's autonomous software also failed to detect the person in the roadway.

In addition to the report, police released audio files of 911 calls made by Vasquez. Photographs of Herzberg's damaged bicycle and the Uber car were published online along with videos from police officers' body cameras that capture the minutes after the crash.

The accident was the first fatality for the nascent self-driving car industry. Uber shuttered its entire autonomous car testing program after the incident and says it plans to resume testing later this summer.

Google's self-driving arm Waymo also operated its autonomous cars alongside Uber's in Arizona. Like other companies, Waymo suspended its autonomous testing after the Uber incident, but the company has since resumed it.

Waymo's CEO John Krafcik, speaking at the National Automobile Dealers Association meeting in Las Vegas several days after the crash, said that Waymo's technology "would be robust and would be able to handle situations like that one."

The safety of Uber's self-driving program has come under fire as the ride-hailing company rushed to bring the first self-driving service to market. In addition to Arizona and Pittsburgh, Uber was testing its autonomous technology in San Francisco, until a self-drving Uber Volvo was caputed on video running a red light in the downtown in December 2016.

It was after this incident that Uber moved its California autonomous testing operations to Arizona.

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