Backup Uber driver in automated car was 'streaming The Voice before fatal crash'

The backup driver in an autonomous Uber SUV was streaming television show ‘The Voice’ on her phone and looking downward just before fatally striking a pedestrian, according to a police report. 

The 300-page report released on Thursday night by police in Tempe in the US revealed driver Rafaela Vasquez had been streaming the musical talent show via Hulu in the 43 minutes before the March 18 crash.

Elaine Herzberg was killed as she crossed a darkened road outside the lines of a crosswalk.  

The report said the crash, which marks the first fatality involving a self-driving vehicle, would not have happened had the driver not been distracted. 

A police report has found Rafaela Vasquez (pictured) was streaming The Voice on her phone while she sat in a self-driving Uber involved in a fatal crash. Source: AAP

Dashcamera video shows Ms Vasquez was looking down near her right knee for four or five seconds before the crash.

She looked up a half second before Ms Herzberg was struck while the Volvo was traveling about 70km/h.

Ms Vasquez told police Ms Herzberg “came out of nowhere” and she did not see her prior to the collision.

But officers calculated had Ms Vasquez been paying attention, she could have reacted about 44 metres before impact and brought the SUV to a stop about 13 metres before hitting Ms Herzberg.

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

Tempe police are looking at a vehicular manslaughter charge in the crash, according to a March 19 affidavit filed to get a search warrant for audio, video and data stored in the Uber SUV. 

The detective seeking the warrant, identified as J Barutha, wrote that based on information from the vehicular homicide unit, “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”.

A self-driving Uber vehicle similar to the one involved in a fatal crash in the US. Source: AAP, file

The National Transportation Safety Board, in a preliminary report issued last month, said the autonomous driving system on Uber’s Volvo XC-90 SUV spotted Ms Herzberg about six seconds before hitting her.

But IT did not stop because the system used to automatically apply brakes in potentially dangerous situations had been disabled.

The system is disabled while Uber’s cars are under computer control “to reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behaviour”, the NTSB report said.

Instead of the system, Uber relies on the human backup driver to intervene, the report stated. But the system is not designed to alert the driver. 

Police initially determined Ms Vasquez was not impaired after giving her a field test. 

Analysis of video taken from the vehicle shows Ms Vasquez looked downward 204 times in the about 18 kilometres travelled before the crash.

While the SUV was in motion, Ms Vasquez averted her eyes away from the roadway nearly a third of the time, according to the report.

“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.” 

An Uber spokeswoman said in a prepared statement on Friday morning the company was cooperating with investigations while it does an internal safety review.

“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 program soon,” the statement said. 

Use of a mobile device while an autonomous vehicle is moving is a fireable offense, and “this is emphasised on an ongoing basis”, the statement said. 

After the crash, the ride-hailing company said it did a top-to-bottom safety evaluation, reviewing internal processes and safety culture.

Uber also said it brought in former transportation safety board chairman Christopher Hart to advise the company on safety. 

Both Ms Vasquez and Uber could still face civil liability in the case, Uber for potentially negligent hiring, training and supervision, Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who closely follows autonomous vehicles, said.

Ms Vasquez could be charged criminally and if there’s evidence that Uber or its employees acted recklessly, then charges against them are possible, Prof Smith said.

But charges against the company are not likely, he added.