Uber driver was watching Hulu when self-driving auto killed pedestrian

Arturo Kim
June 25, 2018

A woman in the driving seat of an autonomous Uber that hit and killed a pedestrian was likely streaming an episode of telly show The Voice on her phone immediately before the collision, according to reports.

A report published by the Tempe Police Department says that Rafaela Vasquez was repeatedly looking down prior to the fatal crash.

Data from Hulu showed Vasquez was streaming "The Voice" for about 42 minutes.

During Vasquez's ride in the Uber vehicle, which was recorded on video inside the vehicle as part of the testing, she looked down 204 times, mostly in the direction of the lower center console near her right knee, according to the police report.

Uber has yet to officially confirm why the vehicle failed to stop when Herzberg stepped into the road, but company insiders told U.S. news site The Information that the self-driving software had chosen to ignore her. Her phone stopped streaming the show at 9:59 p.m., which is about when the XC90 struck pedestrian Elaine Herzberg as she was walking a bicycle across a dark road in Tempe.

In it, Vasquez can clearly be seen looking down at something just before impact.

A spokeswoman last month said the company was undergoing a "top-to-bottom safety review". After the incident which took place in March, Uber announced that they are closing self-driving vehicle operation in Arizona.

The Uber vehicle was in autonomous mode at the time of the crash.

Uber requires a backup driver in any of its autonomous vehicles, but said driver is of no use if he or she isn't paying attention to the road. If Vasquez had braked, she would have given Herzberg an extra.57 seconds of time to cross in front of the vehicle.

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The crash dealt Uber a major setback in its efforts to develop self-driving cars, and the company closed its autonomous auto testing programme in Arizona after the incident.

"This crash would not have occurred if Vasquez would have been monitoring the vehicle and roadway conditions and was not distracted", the report stated.

At the same time, Vasquez was convicted of unsworn falsification committed in 1999, meaning she made a false statement to a public officials, and received a concurrent one year sentence. Of the almost 22 minutes that elapsed during that distance, Vasquez was looking down for 6 minutes and 47 seconds, the newspaper reported.

While the report is bad news for Vasquez, the NTSB report also found that poor engineering decisions by Uber contributed to the crash.

Shortly after the crash, police body camera video shows Vasquez telling officers what she saw, which wasn't much. "We plan to share more on the changes we'll make to our program soon".

Uber has hired former National Transportation Safety Board chair Christopher Hart as an adviser on the company's overall safety culture.

County Attorney Bill Montgomery had the case transferred to the Yavapai County Attorney's Office to avoid any conflicts of interest. The operator of the vehicle was supposed to be watching the road and dealing with emergencies.

A fatal Tesla crash in Florida may have involved the driver watching a Harry Potter movie on a portable DVD player while the car's Autopilot mode was engaged.

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