Driver in Autonomous Uber Car ‘Distracted’ During Crash

Chris Jasurek
By Chris Jasurek
June 23, 2018USshare

NTD Photo

The driver of the first self-driving car to fatally hit a pedestrian might be facing vehicular manslaughter charges.

Rafaela Vasquez, who was assigned as the backup safety driver in autonomous vehicle (AV) operated by ride-share company Uber, might not have been monitoring the car’s sensors just before the car struck and killed a woman crossing a dark street in Tempe Arizona, on March 18.

Instead, it seems, Vasquez was streaming the TV show “The Voice” on Hulu.

Tempe police released a 300-plus-page report on the collision between the Uber AV and a pedestrian, according to AZCentral.

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

The accident scene in Tempe, Arizona, on the night of March 18 (blacklistednews.com/Wikimedia)
The accident scene in Tempe, Arizona, on the night of March 18 (blacklistednews.com/Wikimedia)

Based on the report, Tempe police have referred the case to the county attorney’s office, first in Maricopa County and then to Yavapai County. The county attorney will determine whether to file charges and when to make the police report public.

Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir initially took the position that the collision would have been “difficult to avoid” based on an initial police investigation and a review of the in-car video.

“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,” Moir told the San Francisco Chronicle on March 20.

This Uber autonomous Volvo is similar to the one involved in the fatal crash in Tempe, Arizona. (Wikimedia commons)
This Uber autonomous Volvo is similar to the one involved in the fatal crash in Tempe, Arizona. (Wikimedia Commons)

Moir did leave herself an out, ending the interview by stating, “I won’t rule out the potential to file charges against the (backup driver) in the Uber vehicle.”

Tempe Police have found reason to file those charges: The police and video entertainment provider Hulu cooperated to correlate Vasquez’s data with the crash data. It appears that rather than monitoring the AV’s sensor system, Vasquez was watching singers compete for prizes.

“She appears to be looking down at the area near her right knee at various points in the video,” AZCentral cites the report as saying. “Sometimes, her face appears to react and show a smirk or laugh at various points during the times that she is looking down. Her hands are not visible in the frame of the video during these times.’’

Rafaela Vasquez looks down at her phone seconds before the fatal collision with Elaine Herzberger. (YouTube screenshot)
Rafaela Vasquez looks down at her phone seconds before the fatal collision with Elaine Herzberger. (Screenshot via YouTube)

The Fatal Collision

Uber had had a fleet of “driverless” cars testing on public roads in the greater Phoenix area for several months before the accident.

These cars, Volvo XC90 SUVs with multiple sensors and a computer brain, were supposed to self-drive, but Uber mandated that a human had to be behind the wheel in case of emergencies.

In this case, an Uber AV was proceeding north at moderate speed on Mill Avenue in Tempe when 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg tried to cross the street while pushing her bicycle, about 100 yards from a designated crosswalk.

Herzberg appeared not to notice the oncoming car until it was about 50 feet away, based on the car’s dashcam footage. Toxicology reports indicate the presence of methamphetamine and marijuana in her system.

Vasquez, the safety driver, did not notice Herzberger either, until less than a second before the impact.

The car struck Herzberg with its right front fender, while Herzberg was in the far right lane of the road. She nearly made it across before the impact.

Herzberg died of her injuries shortly after arriving at the hospital.

A screenshot from the Uber’s dash-cam shows Elaine Herzberger instants before the impact. (World News/YouTube screenshot)
A screenshot from the Uber’s dash-cam shows Elaine Herzberg instants before the impact. (Screenshot via World News/YouTube)

Sensor Issues, Attention Deficits

The accident generated vigorous online debate between proponents and opponents of AV technology.

Many people found it hard to believe that the car’s Lidar system (similar to radar but using laser instead of radio waves) could have overlooked a pedestrian pushing a bicycle, even a pedestrian in dark clothes on an unlighted stretch of road.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report, the Lidar system did notice Herzberg about six seconds before the impact—but could not classify her. I took 4.7 seconds for the car’s Artificial Intelligence system (AI) to decide that emergency braking was required to avoid a collision.

Unfortunately, Uber had turned off the Volvo’s emergency braking system because its software conflicted with Uber’s AV AI.

An Uber self-driving car drives down 5th Street on March 28, 2017 in San Francisco, California. Cars in Uber's self-driving cars are back on the roads after the program was temporarily halted following a crash in Tempe, Arizona on Friday. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
An Uber self-driving car drives down 5th Street on March 28, 2017, in San Francisco. Cars in Uber’s self-driving cars are back on the roads after the program was temporarily halted following a crash in Tempe, Arizona on Friday. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

By the time Vasquez realized that a collision was imminent, she had barely enough time to get her foot to the brake, let alone stop the car.

Uber had both a forward-facing dashcam and another, facing the driver, mounted in the car involved in the collision.

The interior camera showed that for nearly one-third of the 22 minutes preceding the crash, Vasquez was looking down at something below the level of the dashboard.

Vasquez told NTSB investigators that she had been “monitoring the self-driving system interface.” She also stated that both her personal and business phones were off at the time of the accident. She activated one of them to call 911.

Given the conflict between the cellphone data, video, and Vasquez’s statement, it would seem the former Uber employee might face serious charges. In Arizona, manslaughter in Arizona is a class 2 felony and carries a minimum sentence of four years and a maximum of 10 years, according to Cnet.com.

NTD Photo
An Uber self-driving car drives down Fifth Street in San Francisco, on March 28, 2017. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Uber Off the Hook

While driver error certainly played a role in this fatal collision, it is incontrovertible that Uber’s AV control system also played a role.

After the NTSB released its preliminary report, University of South Carolina assistant law professor Bryant Walker Smith told The New York Times, “The circumstances of the crash was certainly damning, and this report documents it. Many of the issues raised in the report lead right back to Uber and Uber’s testing program as a legitimate target of criticism.”

However, Uber has already acted in self-defense.

Rafaela Vasquez has been terminated.

More important for Uber, the company very quickly reached a settlement with the remaining family of crash victim Elaine Herzberg.

The details of the settlement are sealed, but Herzberg’s husband and daughter were the parties involved in the settlement which was announced at the end of March.

At that time, it appeared that Uber would bear no blame for the crash.

Herzberg was homeless at the time of the collision, and had a string of drug arrests in her past.

The family did hire an attorney, Christina Perez Hesano.

 

 

Watch Next:

Firefighter Going Over 100 mph Before Deadly Crash

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