By on June 22, 2018

uber volvo autonomous

The mash-up of fledgling technology that requires human vigilance to ensure safety and our natural inclination to become distracted by mobile devices appears to be the cause of the fatal Tempe, Arizona Uber crash in March.

According to a lengthy police report obtained by Reuters, the driver of the autonomous Volvo XC90 operated by Uber Technologies may have been watching the TV show The Voice in the moments leading up to the collision. The impact killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, who was crossing the darkened street with her bicycle.

The Tempe Police Department’s records show that Rafaela Vasquez, the Uber safety driver, was streaming the show on her phone via Hulu for 42 minutes leading up to the crash. The driver ended the show at 9:59 p.m. on March 18th — roughly the same time as the collision. In the 22 minutes preceding the collision, Vasquez’s eyes left the road for a total of 7 minutes, police say.

Vasquez, who was seen on video looking down and smirking at something prior to the collision, looked up and noticed the approaching pedestrian 0.5 seconds before impact, the report states. There was no time to brake. The Volvo hit Herzberg travelling just under 44 miles per hour, the report states.

In order to ensure a smooth driving experience and avoid unnecessary braking, sources have claimed Uber programmed its software to ignore probable “false positives” — objects picked up by the car’s sensor array that require no emergency maneuvers, like a wind-blown plastic bag. In the absence of a fully fleshed-out self-driving system, and with the vehicle relying on a human occupant to ensure the safety of the public, the driver’s failure could be considered criminal. The police records show Vasquez could be charged with vehicle manslaughter.

In a preliminary report released by the National Transportation Safety Board in May, investigators discovered that the vehicle picked up Herzberg with its sensors (“saw,” in other words) six seconds before impact. The Volvo’s brakes weren’t applied until a second after impact.

Thought the Volvo in question comes from the factory with automatic emergency braking, Uber’s software overrides Volvo’s when the vehicle is in self-driving test mode, cancelling out AEB. It’s the safety driver’s job to intervene.

In the NTSB report, it’s revealed that Vasquez told investigators “she had been monitoring the self-driving interface and that while her personal and business phones were in the vehicle neither were in use until after the crash.” There are currently no charges laid against the driver.

A case of overconfidence in technology, despite warnings of the need for human vigilance? Sure looks like it. We’ve seen this scenario crop up since the earliest days of Tesla’s Autopilot, and it’s still causing collisions.

In the wake of the crash, Uber suspended its autonomous driving testing program and hired a former federal safety official to perform a top-down safety review. Uber has announced it will no longer test its vehicles in Arizona.

[Image: Uber Technologies]

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16 Comments on “Uber Driver May Have Been Watching TV Before Fatal Collision: Police...”

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Police – “Your driverless car killed someone”

    Uber – “It was the driver’s fault.”

    I know, its a test and yes, the driver was being paid to make sure this didn’t happen…just funny.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    “It’s the safety driver’s job to intervene.”

    In the case of the Uber AV, is this actually true? What SAE level of autonomy does this system claim to be?

    If it’s Level 4 or 5, that driver has no obligation to intervene.

    Doesn’t matter anyway – according to EBFlex, it’s the victim’s fault because she was jaywalking at night.

    • 0 avatar

      I have never crossed a street with total confidence that the driver will avoid or stop for me. I make sure I am clear of them.

      Doing this in black clothingm at night. No lighting. Not in a crosswalk, I apply 50% minimum of the blame on the dead.

      • 0 avatar

        @redapple: Please check out this video which was shot at the same time of night as the fatality by a resident of the city. It seems clear that the conditions are different from the “released” video as far a lighting goes.

    • 0 avatar

      “Doesn’t matter anyway – according to EBFlex, it’s the victim’s fault because she was jaywalking at night.”

      Are you sure EBFlex didn’t blame Ford?

  • avatar

    How was Vasquez briefed prior to accepting this assignment? Was she aware of the level of autonomy the vehicle possessed? Did she receive instruction or a nod and a wink? From what I’ve read about her, she doesn’t appear to be a very responsible person. Maybe this testing shouldn’t be done “on the cheap”.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, agreed.

      That said, there is a very real danger in any solution that is 99.5% robust. Expecting a human to stay attentive while the car seemingly performs perfectly for days or weeks will lull /anyone/ into a sense of complacency. It’s inevitable and unavoidable.

      I do not think we are ready for a leap in self-driving technology. Slow incremental improvement is preferable here. I’ve seen few cars that can even get adaptive cruise control to work Ivery) well at this point. I’m a software developer, and have worked at one of the companies that is developing self-driving technology. There’s some very bright folks there, and a lot of somewhat above average folks. Even the bright ones make mistakes and take shortcuts that make me shudder.

      We are not able to deal well with tightly coupled complex systems. These are by their nature impossible to validate effectively, so we replace validation coverage with “machine learning” and blame the training algorithm when things go wrong. The reality is, at this point, these systems are broken by design.

    • 0 avatar
      Tele Vision

      Anyone who watches said dreck shouldn’t be entrusted with a 9v battery, never mind a supposedly driverless car in the position of ‘Safety Driver’.

  • avatar

    TVs are bad juju in the front seats of cars. And I contend that touch screens and interactive infotainment systems are the same unless they are very intuitive and can be operated from muscle memory with minimum eye contact. CD players were bad enough- thank goodness that most people don”t have them anymore. MANY people can’t handle driving and multi-tasking with a cell phone or touch screen safely.
    The main reason that I hate the idea of autonomous cars, trucks and busses is that no one is at the wheel.

  • avatar

    Canceling out the factory emergency braking seems like an odd thing for Uber to do.

  • avatar

    How many people will have to die before this nonsense of testing a highly dangerous unproven early-development-stage technology on public streets, is stopped?

    The FAA wouldn’t let Boeing do the first flight test of an airliner by filling it up with 300 ordinary citizens and flying it from LA to Sydney.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve been wondering why an extensive testing course hasn’t been developed with a required level of performance needed before any of these cars are permitted to operate on the road in autonomous mode.
      I would think uniform standards enforced by the govt and funded by the industry would be the way to go.

      • 0 avatar

        @whittaker: In Boston, there is closer government oversight than AZ. Testing in some of Massachusetts toughest driving environments is about to begin. Here’s a link to the documents.

  • avatar

    She should be locked up if for no other reason because of her incredibly poor taste in TV shows…

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