Uber Self-Driving Car Operator Was Watching Hulu When the Car Struck and Killed a Pedestrian
A new police report shows the fatal crash in Tempe, Arizona could have been avoided.
Image: Tempe Police Department
When Uber’s self-driving car killed an Arizona woman in March, the vehicle’s operator was watching Hulu on her phone. Police have deemed the crash “entirely avoidable.”
That’s according to a 318-page report from the Tempe Police Department, released on Thursday in response to a public records request, reports Reuters. Safety driver Rafaela Vasquez could be charged with vehicle manslaughter.
Vasquez had been streaming The Voice on her phone for 42 minutes, straight up through the crash, according to Hulu records obtained by police.
Previously, Vasquez had told National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators that she was monitoring the car’s self-driving system interface on an iPad. (In a video of the collison released by police, Vasquez is seen looking down—the reason for that, she claimed, was due to the iPad being mounted on the center console.) She also denied using her personal and business phones around the time of the crash.
But Vasquez was distracted or looking down for seven of the 22 minutes preceding the collision, police noted. And she “appears to react and show a smirk or laugh at various points during the times that she is looking down.”
The victim, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, was homeless and pushing her bicycle across the road outside of a crosswalk when she was hit. The Uber vehicle struck her going 39 miles per hour.
Vasquez tried to brake less than a second before impact, an NTSB preliminary report shows. (Her hands had not been on the steering wheel.) She looked up 0.5 seconds before the crash, after looking down for 5.3 seconds.
The NTSB report also found the car’s radar and LIDAR sensors detected Herzberg six seconds before impact, but classified her as an “unknown object,” a vehicle, and a bicycle.
Just 1.3 seconds before the crash, the car’s system determined that emergency braking was necessary. But Uber had disabled this feature in the Volvo XC90 while being autonomously piloted to “reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior.”
These reports don’t say whether Uber had been monitoring Vasquez at all. Uber prohibits its operators from using mobile devices on public roads, and allegedly spot-checks dash-cam footage.
Yet Uber’s self-driving car program struggled long before the Tempe crash. According to a New York Times report, Arizona operators were being pressured to go alone, when previously they’d worked in pairs. And compared to rivals like Waymo, Uber’s “intervention” rate—when operators would need to take the wheel—was significantly more frequent, indicating that Uber’s system was less reliable.
“We continue to cooperate fully with ongoing investigations while conducting our own internal safety review… We plan to share more on the changes we’ll make to our program soon,” Uber told Motherboard in a statement.
After the crash, Uber shut down its self-driving car program in Arizona, and a ban was placed on the company by the state’s governor, Doug Ducey. Old emails between Ducey and Uber obtained by The Guardian, however, show the governor allowing Uber to begin testing without informing the public.
Uber did not renew its permit to test self-driving cars in California.
In May, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said he’s waiting for the results of the federal investigation, and plans to resume self-driving car programs “in a few months.”