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Uber autonomous-SUV driver streamed 'The Voice' just before deadly Arizona crash, report says

Uber autonomous-SUV driver streamed 'The Voice' just before deadly Arizona crash, report says
Investigators examine a self-driving Uber SUV that fatally struck a woman in Tempe, Ariz., in March. (National Transportation Safety Board)

The human backup driver in an autonomous Uber SUV was streaming the television show “The Voice” and looking down just before fatally striking a pedestrian in Arizona, according to a police report.

The 300-page report released Thursday night by police in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe revealed that driver Rafaela Vasquez had been streaming the musical talent show on her phone via Hulu in the 43 minutes before the March 18 crash that killed Elaine Herzberg as Herzberg 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, wouldn't have happened had the driver not been distracted.

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Dash-camera video shows Vasquez was looking down near her right knee for four or five seconds before the crash. She looked up half a second before the SUV struck Herzberg at about 44 mph. Vasquez told police that Herzberg “came out of nowhere” and that she didn't see her before the collision. But officers calculated that had Vasquez been paying attention, she could have reacted 143 feet before impact and brought the SUV to a stop about 42.6 feet before hitting Herzberg.

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

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 offense is currently located in a 2017 Grey Volvo XC-90.”

A previously released video showed Vasquez looking down just before the crash. She had a startled look on her face around the time of the impact.

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 Herzberg about six seconds before hitting her, but 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 behavior,” the NTSB report said. Instead of the system, Uber relies on the human backup driver to intervene, the report said. But the system is not designed to alert the driver.

Uber pulled its self-driving cars out of Arizona the day before the NTSB report was released, eliminating the jobs of about 300 people who served as backup drivers and performed other jobs connected to the vehicles. The company had suspended testing of its self-driving vehicles in Arizona, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Toronto while regulators investigated the cause of the crash. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey prohibited Uber from continuing its tests of self-driving cars after Herzberg was hit.

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

Analysis of video taken from the vehicle shows Vasquez looked downward 204 times in the 11.8 miles traveled before the crash. While the SUV was in motion, Vasquez averted her eyes from the road 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 Friday morning that any use of a mobile device by a backup driver while a vehicle is moving is a fireable offense. “This is emphasized during training and 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 NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart to advise the company on safety.

11:30 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with details from the police report.

8:20 a.m.: This article was updated with expanded comment from an Uber spokeswoman.

This article was originally published at 7:10 a.m.

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