Uber self-driving car driver was watching "The Voice" on her phone before fatal crash, police say

June 22, 2018

Police in Tempe, Arizona, said Thursday that the test driver in a self-driving Uber prototype vehicle was streaming the TV show "The Voice" on Hulu on her cell phone in the moments leading up to a fatal crash that killed a pedestrian in March.

The Tempe Police Department's report released to Reuters builds on a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) preliminary report filed May 24. In the government's report, backup driver Rafaela Vasquez confirmed she was looking away from the road but told federal investigators that she was monitoring the vehicle's experimental self-driving functions.

Piecing together the NTSB's timeline with data released by Hulu reveals that Vasquez had been streaming Hulu for all but three minutes of her 45-minute drive in a Volvo XC90 crossover SUV fitted with Uber's prototype self-driving car technology.

The Tempe police report said that during the drive, Vasquez “appears to react and show a smirk or laugh at various points during the times that she is looking down.”

According to Tempe police, Detective Michael McCormick reached out to Hulu in an email on May 10 but the online streaming service didn't turn over its records until May 31.

Hulu records showed that Vasquez had been watching "The Voice" for about 42 minutes. 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. Herzberg was not walking in a designated crosswalk.

The NTSB report says that Uber's radar and lidar systems spotted Herzberg "about 6 seconds before impact" and that the self-driving system determined 1.3 seconds before the impact that an emergency braking maneuver was necessary. Less than a second before impact, the vehicle's data recorder showed that Vasquez turned the Volvo's steering wheel but that she didn't apply the brakes until after Herzberg was struck.

A camera inside the vehicle pointed at the driver indicated that she didn't look up until half a second before impact. The vehicle was traveling at about 44 mph.

Though the XC90 was fitted with Volvo's own automatic emergency braking software, neither report implicates the automaker because Uber's systems turned off the factory-installed safety gear.

Additionally, the NTSB report said that Uber intentionally disabled automatic braking while the vehicle was under its system's control "to reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior." Instead, Uber relied on its drivers "to intervene and take action" even though its system doesn't sound a visual or audible alert. 

Uber has since halted self-driving car testing in Arizona and has faced a rocky re-start to its testing in Pittsburgh.

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