Deadly Uber crash was ‘entirely avoidable’ had the driver not been watching Hulu

Safety driver was watching Hulu during the fatal Uber accident in Arizona

The human operator behind the wheel of the self-driving Uber that fatally struck a pedestrian was apparently streaming a television show on Hulu right before the tragic crash took place in March, a new police report notes. This revelation comes as a major setback to Uber, as it suggests that the accident was “entirely avoidable.”

The 318-page report from the Tempe Police Department notes that the safety driver, Rafaela Vasquez, was repeatedly looking down rather than at the road, and looked up just half a second before the car crashed into 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg. Vasquez could be facing charges of vehicular manslaughter.

Hulu provided records to the police, which showed that Vasquez’s account was active and streaming the show, The Voice for 42 minutes the evening of  the crash, ending at 9:59 p.m., which “coincides with the approximate time of the collision,” the report says.

In examining video from inside the car, Vasquez can allegedly be seen gazing downwards, and her face “appears to react and show a smirk or laugh at various points during the times that she is looking down.”

Police also released several audio files of 911 calls Vasquez made to the authorities as she waited at the scene of the accident for police.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey suspended Uber’s authorization to test its self-driving cars on the state’s roads following the crash. In a letter to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, Ducey said he found the video of the incident “disturbing and alarming,” adding that as governor, his top priority is public safety. He said public safety should also be the top priority for those operating autonomous-car technology, but said the fatal crash was “an unquestionable failure to comply with this expectation.” He finished by saying that he had instructed the Arizona Department of Transportation to suspend Uber’s self-driving tests in the state.

Uber had already put the brakes on its experimental autonomous vehicles in Phoenix, Arizona; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Toronto, Canada, and San Francisco for an unspecified period following the deadly collision on March 18 involving one of its prototypes and a woman in Tempe, Arizona.

The incident likely marks the first pedestrian fatality involving an autonomous vehicle.

What happened?

49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, who was struck while pushing her bike and later died from her injuries, was walking outside of the crosswalk, according to a Tempe Police Department statement. The car was operating in self-driving mode, the police said, but a vehicle operator was behind the wheel at the time. The car was traveling at 40 mph in a 45 mph zone when it hit Herzberg and it made no attempt to brake or swerve. The National Transportation Safety Board said on Twitter that it planned to open an investigation of the incident, noting “more to come.”

The footage highlights several important details. First, it shows Herzberg was already well into the roadway when the prototype hit her. This contradicts earlier reports claiming she darted across the road at the last minute. It consequently also raises the question of why the armada of sensors — including some that see at night — didn’t recognize a pedestrian and a bicycle on a dark but otherwise clear street.

Second, the video confirms the prototype’s operator took her eyes off the road for several seconds at a time in the moments leading up to the crash. We don’t know if that’s a violation of Uber’s operator guidelines. We reached out to the company for clarification but a spokesperson declined to comment.

The video represents the most important piece of information in the investigation. “It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway,” Sylvia Moir, Tempe’s police chief, concluded. But while Uber’s prototype might not be at fault, the operator behind the wheel could ultimately face charges.

Who’s to blame?

“I suspect preliminarily it appears that Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident,” Moir said. “I won’t rule out the potential to file charges against the (backup driver) in the Uber vehicle,” she added. Velodyne, the San Jose-based company that made some of the sensors fitted to the Uber prototype, paints a different picture. The company told the BBC it’s “baffled” by the accident and it’s still trying to understand how it happened. It claims the Lidar it sold Uber should have spotted Herzberg even in pitch-black conditions.

“Our Lidar can see perfectly well in the dark, as well as it sees in daylight, producing millions of points of information. However, it is up to the rest of the system to interpret and use the data to make decisions. We do not know how the Uber system of decision-making works,” Marta Hall, Velodyne Lidar’s president explained. “We do not believe the accident was due to Lidar,” she added. Uber chose not to issue a reply while the investigation is still ongoing.

Insiders suggest Uber’s self-driving car program began struggling well before the crash. Speaking to The New York Times, they added the company struggled to meet its goal of one human intervention every 13 miles. To add context, Waymo averages one human intervention every 5,600 miles. To complicate the matter, Uber recently asked its self-driving operators to test cars on public roads on their own instead of pairing up in teams. Some employees expressed safety concerns, notably due to the difficulty of staying alert during the long hours spent behind the wheel.

The same insiders said Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi nearly shut down the self-driving car program when he arrived at the company in August 2017. He ultimately saved it because it’s important for the company’s long-term prospects. He was due to visit the program in Arizona this spring, and employees hoped to give him a trouble-free ride in a prototype, but he canceled the trip due to scheduling programs unrelated to the accident.

What has the response been?

“Our hearts go out to the victim’s family. We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident,” an Uber spokesperson told Digital Trends. The company described the pause in its autonomous vehicle program as “a standard move.” As of writing, testing hasn’t resumed.

Khosrowshahi tweeted his condolences about the sad news, noting that “we’re thinking of the victim’s family as we work with local law enforcement to understand what happened.”

Anthony Foxx, who served as U.S. Secretary of Transportation under President Barack Obama, urged a greater emphasis on self-driving car safety in his own statement:

“There is still so much to know about the Tempe driverless car accident resulting in a loss of life. That said, this is a wake-up call to the entire AV industry and government to put a high priority on safety.”

Velodyne’s Hall added, “we are very sad, sorry, and worried for the future of a project which is intended to save lives.”

What else do we know?

Most recently, a report from The Information suggests that the self-driving car may have in fact seen Herzberg crossing the street, but then decided against taking evasive measures. In fact, the vehicle may have flagged the pedestrian detection as a “false positive.”

The outlet reported that while self-driving car sensors often detect objects that could be humans or other safety hazards, they also have certain thresholds to determine when precautionary measures need to be taken. Apparently, in the case of this particular Uber vehicle, that bar was incorrectly set, and as a result, when Herzberg stepped in front of the car, the Volvo did not brake or swerve. And although Uber keeps human operators in the front seat for safety purposes, crash footage released by the Tempe Police Department showed that this individual was looking down when the accident took place.

For the time being, Uber is declining to provide any further details on this new report. “We’re actively cooperating with the National Transportation Safety Board in their investigation,” the company noted in a statement. “Out of respect for that process and the trust we’ve built with NTSB, we can’t comment on the specifics of the incident. In the meantime, we have initiated a top-to-bottom safety review of our self-driving vehicles program, and we have brought on former NTSB Chair Christopher Hart to advise us on our overall safety culture. Our review is looking at everything from the safety of our system to our training processes for vehicle operators, and we hope to have more to say soon.”

Arizona has seen an alarming number of pedestrian deaths this year. A report from the Governors Highway Safety Association released March 1 said Arizona had the highest rate of pedestrian fatalities in the nation, based on available data from 2017.

Autonomous vehicles from Uber have been operating in Arizona since February 2017 as part of a national series of tests of self-driving vehicles. The company planned to launch a commercial self-driving car service in the state by the end of the year, though it’s not clear whether that’s still in the works. Sources also claimed Uber had entered talks with Toyota to sell its self-driving technology. Again, we don’t know where the deal stands.

USA Today reports that the vehicle operator, 44-year-old Rafaela Vasquez, served almost four years in an Arizona prison in the early 2000s for an attempted armed robbery conviction. An Uber spokesperson declined to comment to the paper on the conviction or the company’s hiring policies, citing an active investigation.

Updated on June 22: Added news that the Uber safety driver was watching Hulu immediately prior to the crash. 

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