Uber safety driver watching video before fatal crash, say police

Uber safety driver watching video before fatal crash, say police

UPDATED Arizona police report that the safety driver involved in the March’s fatal Uber crash was streaming a television show on Hulu before the autonomous test car struck and killed a homeless woman, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg.

On the face of it, the report appears to contradict the driver’s claim that she was monitoring the Uber interface on the modified Volvo’s dashboard immediately before the accident, which took place at night on 18 March, in Tempe.

According to the local Police Department, the safety driver’s account was playing ‘The Voice’ for about 42 minutes, ending at 9.59pm, the approximate time of the crash. Video footage from inside the car showed her looking down for seven of the 22 minutes before the collision.

The police say that the accident would have been “entirely avoidable” had the driver, 44-year-old Rafaela Vasquez, been watching the road. As a result, she could face charges of vehicular manslaughter.

Uber commented, “We have a strict policy prohibiting mobile device usage for anyone operating our self-driving vehicles. We plan to share more on the changes we’ll make to our programme soon.”

Uber plans to begin testing driverless technologies in a new location later this year, if it can persuade authorities in other states that it has addressed safety concerns.

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At this point in the investigation, it is hard to see the police report as exonerating the ride-share giant’s technology or safety culture.

Last month, a preliminary report on the accident from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in the US identified a number of technical issues with Uber’s driverless system and sensors.

According to data obtained by the NTSB from the self-driving system, it first registered radar and LiDAR observations of Herzberg about six seconds before she was hit. Uber’s software first classified her as “an unknown object”, then as “a vehicle”, and then “as a bicycle with varying expectations of future travel path”.

Herzberg was wheeling a cycle across the four-lane highway when she was struck. Although the bike had its lights switched on, it was side on to the car.

At just 1.3 seconds before impact, the self-driving system determined that an emergency braking manoeuvre was needed to avoid collision, but tragically for Herzberg, Volvo’s own emergency braking and driver-assistance technologies were disengaged by Uber’s software. Compounding these problems was the fact that the system wasn’t designed to alert the driver, according to the NTSB report.

Uber’s system data showed that Vasquez finally grabbed the steering wheel a split second before the car struck Herzberg – too late to avoid the collision.

So while the police report is clear that the safety driver was at fault and could be prosecuted over Herzberg’s death, the NTSB report noted that Uber’s driverless system was functioning normally, and yet failed to identify a human being crossing the road with a bicycle – not an unusual event – failed to avoid the collision, and failed to alert the driver of imminent danger.

In other words, had the safety driver been looking at the Uber interface, as she claimed to have been doing – and was required to do – the end result might have been exactly the same.

The NTSB will publish its final report and recommendations in due course.

Plus: Uber, Hermes legal fights

Uber has won its legal battle to regain its ride-hailing licence in London, after claiming that it has made significant changes to its safety and business practices since the licence was suspended in September last year – a decision that Uber has accepted was correct. However, the company has only been granted a 15-month provisional licence, to be reviewed after six months.

Meanwhile in related news, a group of UK couriers for delivery company Hermes have won their legal battle to be recognised as workers for the company, rather than as self employed – a decision that may have far-reaching repercussions for the so-called gig economy, including for ride-share drivers.

Chris Middleton
Chris Middleton is the editor of Internet of Business, and specialises in robotics, AI, the IoT, blockchain, and technology strategy. He is former editor of Computing, Computer Business Review, and Professional Outsourcing, among others, and is a contributing editor to Diginomica, Computing, and Hack & Craft News. Over the years, he has also written for Computer Weekly, The Guardian, The Times, PC World, I-CIO, V3, The Inquirer, and Blockchain News, among many others. He is an acknowledged robotics expert who has appeared on BBC TV and radio, ITN, and Talk Radio, and is probably the only tech journalist in the UK to own a number of humanoid robots, which he hires out to events, exhibitions, universities, and schools. Chris has also chaired conferences on robotics, AI, digital marketing, and space exploration, and spoken at numerous other events.