The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Backup driver in fatal self-driving Uber crash was streaming Hulu

Police in Tempe, Ariz., said June 21 that backup driver Rafaela Vasquez was watching TV right before a fatal crash in a self-driving Uber in March. (Video: Reuters)

The backup driver in an autonomous Uber that struck and killed a pedestrian in March looked down inside the vehicle more than 200 times and her smartphone was streaming NBC’s “The Voice” in the run-up to the deadly collision, according to Tempe, Ariz., police investigators.

Rafaela Vasquez “appears to react and show a smirk or laugh at various points during the time she is looking down,” according to a police report released late Thursday. Her eyes were repeatedly trained on the “lower center console near her right knee,” police said. Video recordings don’t show what she’s doing with her hands.

Uber’s self-driving system initially misidentified the 49-year-old victim, Elaine Herzberg, as a vehicle when she was pushing a bike across a dark thoroughfare, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The ride-hailing company’s specially outfitted Volvo was deliberately being tested on public roads without its emergency braking system turned on, the agency said.

Vasquez, who was supposed to provide a second layer of safety, did not begin braking until after Herzberg was hit.

Police subpoenaed viewing records from the streaming service Hulu that covered Vasquez’s silver LG smartphone.

“The user played one episode of the Voice on March 18, 2018 between 21:16:45 and approximately 21:59:00,” the company responded.

Herzberg was struck at about 9:58 p.m., according to the NTSB.

Self-driving Uber did not have emergency braking turned on when it hit pedestrian, NTSB says

In a May 10 email to Hulu’s legal department, Tempe police detective Michael McCormick asked about the precision of time-stamp data and other information the company provided. There were, for example, some delays in data transmission, which could indicate the player was paused, the user switched apps or cell service issues arose during playback of “The Blind Auditions, Part 5,” according to Hulu.

“Can you advise how accurate the times are that were listed?” McCormick asked. “This is a very serious case where the charges of Vehicular Manslaughter may be charged, so correctly interpreting the information provided to us is crucial.”

NTSB investigators asked Vasquez about her downward glances in a post-crash interview. She denied using either of her cellphones.

“The vehicle operator stated that she had been monitoring the self-driving system interface. The operator further stated that although her personal and business phones were in the vehicle, neither was in use until after the crash, when she called 911,” according to the NTSB.

An Uber spokesman said the company has a “strict policy prohibiting mobile device usage for anyone operating our self-driving vehicles.”

Tempe police concluded that Vasquez should have been able to avoid the deadly collision if she had been paying proper attention.

Uber shutting down self-driving operations in Arizona

“This crash would not have occurred if Vasquez would have been monitoring the vehicle and the roadway conditions and was not distracted,” investigators wrote. Police said Vasquez “was distracted and looking down” for 31 percent of the nearly 22 minutes before the crash, including 5.2 of the last 5.7 seconds.

Among the other factors that led to the crash, according to police, were “Herzberg unlawfully crossing the road at a location other than a marked crosswalk” and “Vasquez’s disregard for assigned job function to intervene in a hazardous situation.”