The backup “safety driver” in an Uber Technologies Inc. self-driving vehicle that killed a pedestrian in March was streaming the popular television show “The Voice” on her mobile phone in the moments before the crash, according to police in Arizona.
A 318-page report filed by the Tempe Police Department refutes driver Rafaela Vasquez’s previous statement to federal safety investigators that she wasn’t using her mobile devices when the car struck and killed a woman who was crossing the street at night.
Police were able to obtain records of Vasquez’s account from the television streaming service Hulu LLC, which showed she’d streamed the talent show for 42 minutes on the night of the March 18 crash. Her stream ended at 9:59 p.m., around the same time Elaine Herzberg, 49, was hit by the Uber, which was in self-driving mode, the report said.
Police concluded in the report that the crash was “entirely avoidable” and said Vasquez could face vehicular manslaughter charges.
Sensors on the Uber Volvo SUV’s system had detected Herzberg six seconds before the impact and recognized that it was going to crash 1.3 seconds prior, according to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board. But the system couldn’t activate the brakes because, according to Uber, emergency braking isn’t enabled while the vehicle is under computer control, the report said. The responsibility for braking was left up to Vasquez — who didn’t look up until 0.5 seconds before the accident.
Vasquez was looking away from the road for long stretches in the time before the crash, according to an internal video showing her that was released by police. She told NTSB investigators she was monitoring the self-driving system’s interface. Vasquez couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
A spokesperson for Uber said the company continues to cooperate fully with ongoing investigations while conducting our own internal safety review, adding that Uber policy prohibits mobile device usage for anyone operating its self-driving vehicles.
The fatality prompted the ride-hailing giant to suspend all road testing of self-driving vehicles in areas including Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto. The incident marked the first death involving a fully autonomous car, and sparked concern over the safety of the technology.
Police submitted their findings to county prosecutors, who’ll make the determination about whether to bring any charges. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office was last reported to have referred the case to the Yavapai County Attorney’s Office.
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