Driver at fault in Uber autonomous vehicle fatality

Published: June 24, 2018

Updated: July 24, 2018

Author: Luke Jones

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When an autonomous Uber car hit and killed a pedestrian earlier this year, the fallout was dramatic. The ride-sharing firm, a leader in driverless car development and testing, pulled the plug on its program, while further doubts were cast over the future of autonomous technology. However, a report released detailing the incident points to human error as pivotal in the accident.

The collision occurred in Phoenix on March 18 when a semi-autonomous Uber car driven by Rafaela Vasquez struck Elaine Herzberg as she crossed a darkened crosswalk. Herzberg was outside the white lines marking the crosswalk and was killed in the crash.

A 300-page report published on Thursday by Tempe police says Rafaela was streaming “The Voice” and looking down at the time of the incident. While Uber’s vehicles had numerous self-driving abilities, the cars were not fully autonomous. Vasquez was a backup who was not in a position to help the situation because the was watching the musical talent show on here phone.

Using the Hulu streaming system, Vasquez had been watching the show for 43 minutes ahead of the incident. The collision resulted in the first death caused by a self-driving car, but the report says the incident would not have happened had Vasquez not been distracted.

Footage taken from the vehicle dash camera appears to backup the report. In the recordings, Vasquez is seen looking down towards here knee in the Volvo car as it travelled at around 44 miles per hour. While she claimed Herzberg “came out of nowhere” and was unseen, police believe it was the distraction that resulted in the fatality. Indeed, the report says Vasquez could have started stopping the vehicle 143 feet before the incident and brought the Volvo to a stop 42.6 feet before hitting the pedestrian.

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

As a result of the findings, authorities in Tempe are seeking a vehicular manslaughter charge, stating “it is believed that the crime of vehicular manslaughter has occurred, and that evidence of this offence is currently located in a 2017 Grey Volvo XC-90.”

Police were alerted to the fact Vasquez was watching something on her smartphone by the fact dash cam footage shows she looked downwards 204 times in 11.8 miles, taking her eyes of the road for nearly a third of the time.

“Sometimes, her face appears to react and show a smirk or laugh at various points during the times that she is looking down,” the report said. “Her hands are not visible in the frame of the video during these times.”

Uber said someone using a mobile device, even in a self-driving vehicle faces being fired. “This is emphasized during training and on an ongoing basis,” the statement said.