Uber Driver May Have Been Watching TV Before Fatal Collision: Police

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

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]

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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