Fatal Uber Crash Probe Finds Driver Was Streaming Video

The backup driver of the self-driving Uber SUV that fatally struck a pedestrian in Arizona earlier this year was streaming a TV show on one of her smartphones just before the crash, the Tempe Police Department’s investigation has found.

The redacted police report on the incident, obtained by The Connected Car through a public record request, contained the latest disturbing set of facts to emerge about the March 18 crash, the first known fatal accident involving a self-driving vehicle. The incident was a setback for the autonomous vehicle industry, which says such cars could eventually prevent thousands of deaths from human-caused accidents. Uber immediately halted all real-world tests in the US, as did Toyota, Nvidia and others.

Uber’s AV division has since left Arizona and said it will restart tests close to its engineering centers.

Rafaela Vasquez, 44, who was behind the wheel of the Volvo XC90 test car when the crash took place, was streaming the show The Voice on Hulu until 9:59 p.m., the approximate time of the collision, the report said. An in-car video released earlier this year appeared to show Vasquez looking down the console of the vehicle until just before impact. Tempe police investigators learned about the streaming by obtaining records from Hulu under a search warrant.

In the report, police said video from earlier in the drive showed Vasquez looking down 204 times in the 11.8 miles the vehicle traveled before the crash, occasionally smirking or laughing. Vasquez had told the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) she was monitoring the self-driving system interface and did not use her personal or company phones until after the accident.

Prosecutors are considering charges including vehicular manslaughter against Vasquez.

The SUV fatally struck Elaine Herzberg, 49, as she walked her bicycle across a wide, divided road about 360 feet away from the nearest crosswalk. The crash has raised questions about AV testing is carried out and how it should be regulated.

Last month, a preliminary report by the NTSB revealed that Uber had turned off the Volvo’s built-in automatic braking system to prevent erratic driving. It was up to the backup driver to brake for objects in the road, and the system wasn’t set up to alert the driver. Vasquez didn’t intervene until less than one second before impact.

Tempe police determined that if Vasquez had been paying attention, she would have been able to react 143 feet before the crash and stop the vehicle 42.6 feet before hitting Herzberg.

Some automation experts say it’s unrealistic to expect drivers to remain alert for long periods in vehicles that perform driving tasks. Uber reportedly had cut back from two safety drivers per car to one before the crash, possibly increasing the chance for inattention.

Even advanced automation features short of full self-driving capability have caused controversy because of the risk to long-term alertness and the temptation to do things like watching streaming video behind the wheel. Some Tesla crashes that took place while the cars’ Autopilot feature was activated have increased scrutiny of that system, and Tesla has made driver-attention alerts more frequent since Autopilot was introduced in 2015.

The marketing of advanced driving assistance systems that fall short of full autonomy, which are becoming mainstream features in new cars, lulls buyers into falsely thinking they can pay less attention to driving, UK analytics company Thatcham Research warned in a recent report.

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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